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01 Nov 2005

Any Given Sunday: Rams over Jaguars

by Ned Macey

After surviving the toughest early season schedule of any team in the league, the Jaguars played in St. Louis their first of six consecutive games against teams with losing records. Plus they were facing a Rams team that was missing its starting quarterback, two starting receivers, and its best defensive player.

The Rams were sitting at 3-4, hounded by controversy surrounding head coach Mike Martz, and just praying to get to the bye week without incident and come out healthy on the other end. With all this in its favor, it seemed that Jacksonville should have steamrolled the battered Rams. Instead, the Jaguars lost 24-21.

But the Jaguars did not play poorly. They simply suffered the inevitable fate of a team with a propensity for close games.

Counting the Rams game, the Jaguars have had five of their seven games this year decided by a touchdown or less. A season ago, the Jaguars played eleven games decided by less than a touchdown. In the first seven of these 16 close games, the Jaguars were 6-1. In the most recent nine, they are 5-4. Close games are apt to be decided by a few crucial plays, and eventually the bounces will even out.

Why does Jacksonville play so many close games? A deficient offense that despite major investment remains a substandard unit. Over the past three seasons, the Jaguars have used all three first-round picks and two second-round picks on offensive players. They have been added to veteran stalwarts Jimmy Smith and Fred Taylor. Despite these additions, according to our advanced metric DVOA (which measures each play and compares it to the league average based on the situation and is further explained here), the Jaguars have an average offense, ranking 16th in the league.

Last year, the Jaguars had a disappointing season using Bill Musgrave's version of the "West Coast" offense. In the off-season, the Jaguars brought in Carl Smith to implement a run-heavy offense with a vertical passing game. This new offense was designed to help disappointing 2004 first-round pick Reggie Williams and 2005 first-round pick/uber-athlete Matt Jones. Quarterback Byron Leftwich has a rifle for an arm, making this vision all the more appealing.

Vision is not reality, however, as the Jaguars have been unable to get competent play from their young receivers. By our measurement of DPAR, which measures the points contributed above a replacement player, Jones and Williams have combined to be 3.2 points below replacement, i.e. worse than a theoretical backup player. The problem is not Leftwich, who by our measurements is having a season roughly equivalent to the more-heralded Eli Manning. Williams missed some time on Sunday with an injury, but when in the game, he caught a grand total of zero passes. The fact that Ernest Wilford, a little-used fourth-round pick, starred with 145 receiving yards in Williams' absence is all the more damning. Jones, for all his vaunted speed, caught only short crossing routes and a touchdown that resulted from a blown coverage rather than any particular skill on his part. For the season, "Speedy" Jones is averaging 9.2 yards per reception and has yet to record a catch of even 20 yards.

The Jaguars still have the aging Jimmy Smith, whose decline would be more obvious but for the fact that he still is clearly the best receiver on the team. Smith has an above-average DVOA of 9.7 percent, which is a solid number. Smith has only caught 47 percent of the passes intended for him, however, and his decline was never clearer than on a fourth-and-1 play from the 25-yard line where Leftwich looked for Smith streaking down the sideline but found him with no separation.

On defense, the Jaguars rank among the league's best by both traditional measurements and our DVOA rankings. This defense is very talented, but the Jaguars have benefited from several breaks along the way.

In Week 3, they played the Jets in the game where Pennington's shoulder actually disintegrated, leading to a 9-of-19 performance with two interceptions. Despite this, the Jaguars had to pull the game out in overtime. In Week 6, they got the Steelers' Tommy Maddox game. In one of the worst performances of the year -- non-Alex Smith division -- Maddox was 11-of-28 with three interceptions, including one in overtime that was returned for a touchdown by Rashean Mathis. This week they got the Rams without Bulger, Torry Holt, or Isaac Bruce.

The Jaguars schedule has still been tough, with games against healthy Colts, Bengals, Seahawks, and Broncos teams, but their ridiculously demanding schedule was certainly eased by injury. Had they faced healthy quarterbacks, they could easily be 2-5.

For the Rams, the early results of the Joe Vitt era have to be encouraging. Taking over in the chaos of Mike Martz's medical condition and the ensuing rumors that Martz has coached his last game for the Rams, Vitt has brought stability. Going into undefeated Indianapolis, Vitt's crew jumped out to a 17-0 lead before an injury to Bulger completely changed the complexion of the game. Missing Bulger, Bruce, and Holt the past two weeks, Vitt has guided the Rams to consecutive victories — the first two games Jamie Martin has won as a starting quarterback after 13 years in the NFL.

Despite his limitations, Vitt and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild have asked Martin to make some plays so that Steven Jackson has room to operate in the running game. Jackson pounded away for 97 yards a week ago against the Saints before exploding for 179 yards on 25 carries against the Jaguars. As an added bonus, Jackson made the biggest play of the fourth quarter on a 19-yard screen pass, rumbling through for a touchdown that gave the Rams the lead. It was Jackson at his best as he ran through a series of defenders while showing enough elusiveness in small spaces to slip into the end zone.

For the season, Jackson has been the third most productive running back when used as a receiver according to DPAR. Increased use of Jackson in the passing game is a wise move. A year ago, in very limited opportunities, he was productive when catching the ball. He has enough speed to make plays in the open field, and he is too physical for defensive backs to bring down by themselves.

One final key for the Rams this season is the sudden turnaround of their special teams. In this game, it was obvious thanks to a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown. For the season, the Rams rank a mediocre 16th in Special Teams DVOA. Some might call this middle of the road, but in St. Louis it is cause for celebration. Last year, they ranked last, and the 31st ranked Buccaneers were closer to 16th place than to the Rams. Special teams on a game-to-game basis are not always consistent, but the massive disadvantage the Rams faced a season ago has been mostly eliminated this year.

On a per-play basis, Jacksonville actually outplayed the Rams in this game. A handful of huge plays made the difference. The blocked punt is the biggest example, but the Rams also connected on an 83-yard pass to Kevin Curtis, who was covered by Rashean Mathis. For every other play of the game, Mathis dominated the Rams, picking up two interceptions and deflecting a ball that led to another interception, but on this play, he mistakenly thought he had safety help, and Curtis scored a touchdown. In a three point loss, Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee missed two field goals. The biggest bright spot of the game for Jacksonville was the emergence of Wilford, but the one ball he did not catch the whole game was deflected into the arms of Mike Furrey, whose return set up Jackson's game-winning touchdown.

Even with these plays, the Jaguars had the ball with a chance to win and over four minutes remaining on the clock. After a couple of first downs, however, Leftwich had nobody open, and in a nice microcosm of the season, Leftwich finished the game with three incomplete passes intended for Matt Jones. With Wilford's emergence, the time is ripe for the Jaguars to insert him in the starting lineup opposite Smith. Williams, Jones, and the entire Detroit Lions receiving corps are combining to cost Santonio Holmes heaps of money after next year's draft. A decision to start Wilford would signal to the team that performance, not pedigree, is what Jack Del Rio values.

Even with Williams in the lineup, the Jaguars are likely to make the playoffs. The only team with a winning record that remains on the Jacksonville schedule is Indianapolis, and the Jaguars always play well against the Colts. Ten wins would be a disappointment with this schedule, but no amount of wins the rest of the way makes the Jaguars an elite team.

The Rams will come out of their desperately needed bye week with a make-or-break game in Seattle. After losing a close decision at home to the Seahawks, the Rams need the win to have any shot in the NFC West. With seven teams in the NFC East and South sporting winning records, an 8-8 record will not be enough this season for a wild card. The game in Seattle will be Vitt's first chance to have most of his team together. What he was able to accomplish without so many of his stars was truly impressive, so St. Louis fans are eagerly anticipating what he will do with a complete Rams team.

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 01 Nov 2005

19 comments, Last at 07 Nov 2005, 1:13pm by NELPHONIOUS OF pENNEFIELDE

Comments

1
by B (not verified) :: Tue, 11/01/2005 - 3:08pm

If Earnest Wilford makes the starting lineup and continues to perform, he's a shoe-in for the TMQ Non-RB Non-QB MVP. Of course, his chances would be even better if he starts filling in as a nickel back, too.

2
by pawnking (not verified) :: Tue, 11/01/2005 - 3:22pm

I've noticed subjectively that teams which lose a star player either on defense or offense sometimes seem to perform a lot better than expected for a game or two, even better than you would think the team would have performed with their star player. Usually this advantage would disappear within two or three weeks.

I have had a theory that the reason for this is because a new player, espicially a QB or key LB, is going to be played in a very conservative way from the opposition, as they do not know his strengths and weaknesses. After a week or two of game tape study, teams can start to design specific game plans to exploit the weaknesses of that new player, and that players effectiveness is either diminished or completly wiped out.

If this is true, could it have affected the Rams game? With a new coach and many star players out, the Jacksonville coaching staff would not have much to work on as far as specific schemes to defend St. Louis, or attack their defense. The Rams, on the other hand, knew pretty much exactly what the Jags would want to do and what to do about it.

I'm suggesting that the Rams are not as good as a win over Jacksonville would indicate, nor are the Jags as poor. As you pointed out, they actually outplayed the Rams overall, but were unable to convert that into a win. Throw in the incertainty of the Rams team this year, and I believe you have what will prove to be a great aberation. I believe the Jags will end up as one of the best teams in the AFC, and the Rams one of the worst in their division.

3
by stereochemistry (not verified) :: Tue, 11/01/2005 - 5:00pm

While I do love reading these articles, I can't help but be a little disappointed you couldn't break down the Bucs/49ers game (though I do understand the difficulty in doing so when it's only being aired in two minor regions).

I did read your comment in the audibles thread about there not being much to discuss, but I still was looking forward to an impartial viewer breaking down the information from the stats (49ers had 50 yards in passing, and under 150 rushing with Barlow and Gore), as well as the defensive scheme every team is probably going to employ against the Bucs now (which granted were demonstrated first in the Detroit Lions game).

4
by Purds (not verified) :: Tue, 11/01/2005 - 5:03pm

Pawnking:

I see this as well, but I am wondering if another factor is at play. Could it be that the teammates of the injured elevate their play to compensate for the loss, and that the team with the injury actually over-performs as they are not looking to be saved by the star?

5
by B (not verified) :: Tue, 11/01/2005 - 5:10pm

As I found out this year, when a team loses a key player, they don't always overcompensate and win the next couple games. Sometimes they get blown away at home.

6
by Rollo (not verified) :: Tue, 11/01/2005 - 5:28pm

Good analysis. I felt the Jags were in a position to send the game to OT, had Wilford been the target of those passes and not Jones. Wilford hasn't gotten more playing time supposedly because of his lack of speed and seperation, but he gets more seperation that Matt Jones and will make plays for the ball. He's exactly the type of receiver Leftwich likes - a big target who Lefty can gun it to in tight space who will come down with the ball. I was a little dissapointed to see no mention of the linebacking play on both sides (two backs over 150 yards, after all) - but I suppose that is more Every Play Counts material.

7
by Ned (not verified) :: Tue, 11/01/2005 - 7:28pm

I disagree with # 2 with regards to this game only in the sense that the Rams didn't actually play that great. A couple huge plays, the blocked kick and the touchdown to Curtis basically decided the game. They survived the Jamie Martin experience. They certianly did not win because of it.

As for the linebackers, I thought it went without saying that St. Louis has an abysmal run defense. Nothing new there. As for Jacksonville, they do have very real questions about their defense. They are so strong up the middle (although Jackson had some success there), but they are weak against the run where Spicer plays, and I'm still waiting to see Daryl Smith make a play. Whether or not to write about the Jacksonville defense raises a very interesting question. If one side of the ball is so much better than the other, can we blame the one side? Jacksonville isn't a top 3 defense, but they are a top 10 defense. Plus, in this game, 14 of the 24 points were scored on pass defense/special teams which are not a weakness, so even though Jackson's success limited Jacksonville's offensive opportunities, the reason the Jaguars lost was thier inability to score more than 21 points against the Rams.

As for SF, I think it is interesting how well they have played at home. Beat Stl. Should have beat DAL (and I watched a bunch of that game thinking it would be this article), played the Colts well defensively, beat TB. Their offense is abysmal, and their road defense is also terrible. Why are they so good at home defense? I don't know, and I didn't watch enough of the game to find out. For their next win, unless it is beating Arizona in SF, I'll try and give them a closer look for this article. (Could they take down the Giants, a notoriously bad road team this week? Probably not, but I'd take the points).

8
by NF (not verified) :: Tue, 11/01/2005 - 8:14pm

Is it just me, or are the Jaguars the most inscrutable team in the NFL? They have the best defense in the NFL that almost no one is talking about, they have a quarterback and running back who no one can definitely predict if they're going to be really good or really bad. Before going 9-7 and missing the playoffs in 2004, they spent 2000-2003 averaging 6-10. Before that, they made the playoffs each year between 1996 and 1999, getting to the AFC championship twice. In 1995, their first season, they had a 4-12 record, then the most wins ever for a 1st-year expansion team. As noted at the NFL site, that the franchise even started is unusual.

What an odd team.

9
by calig23 (not verified) :: Tue, 11/01/2005 - 10:21pm

In 1995, their first season, they had a 4-12 record, then the most wins ever for a 1st-year expansion team.

Um, are you saying that the Jags' 4 wins were the most ever for an expansion team?

Because that's incorrect. Their own expansion partners, Carolina, won 7 games- That is the most ever.

10
by Appaloosa (not verified) :: Wed, 11/02/2005 - 12:18am

Isn't it a little early to throw Matt Jones on the trash heap of failure? After all, he's a rookie trying to learn a position that he never played in college. Even Reggie Williams is not beyond hope. He looks better this year than last year, and it seems that most WRs need two or three years in the league before they peak. The Jags' biggest problem seems to be the play-calling which often does not seem to be well-suited to the capabilities of the players.

11
by Sid (not verified) :: Wed, 11/02/2005 - 12:27am

Wow. How did the Rams's special teams improve so much?

I was pretty surprised when St. Louis won. I know it isn't ever a good idea to bet against the Rams in St. Louis, but I figured this was the week to do it. The passing attack was missing all the key weapons, and Jacksonville was coming off a bye. Additionally, I think Jacksonville is a better team. If Bulger, Holt, and Bruce were healthy, I would have picked the Rams because they were at home.
Oh well. That game could have gone either way.

12
by Steve Sandvik (not verified) :: Wed, 11/02/2005 - 1:14am

Having watched Reggie Williams save the UW Huskies from doom on more than one occasion during his 3 years there, I can safely say he will always be one of my favorite college receivers. However, when he was drafted in the first round, coming out a year early, my reaction was, "Wow, good for him! What the hell are they thinking?" Williams is, in some sense, a couple steps short of being Jerry Rice--unfortunately, that's one step in speed, one step in understanding, and one step in work ethic. Saying that someone doesn't have Jerry Rice's work ethic is certainly no slam, but when that's the skill set you bring with you, you need that sort of burning work ethic to bring it out. Williams had a knack, at the college level, for turning a tiny bit of position, or a tiny misplay by a corner, into a huge play. Unfortunately, when you're playing against professional cornerbacks, you have to beat them straight up far too often. Williams always seem to run as fast with the ball as without it, meaning he was rarely caught from behind. Unfortunately, at the pro level, you will be caught from behind. He clearly never understood body positioning enough to be a posession receiver. I can't even count the number of circus catches he made *around* defenders. That means he was on the wrong side of the defender when the ball was thrown--I've seen him literally jump up and take the ball off the corner's chest from behind him. That's not going to happen in the NFL. He's not fast enough to blow out an NFL corner, not quite clever enough to use his (reasonably large) body to get inside position, and I don't really think he has the drive necessary to learn the slot receiver position well enough--at least not until the first time he's in a contract year and decides he doesn't want to be someone's fourth receiver for the rest of his life.

13
by James, London (not verified) :: Wed, 11/02/2005 - 9:05am

Ned,

Good stuff. How was the Rams O line? I've not seen St Louis this year, and their line has been a problem for them in recent times. Have they improved, particularly in pass protection? I know MDS thinks they have a star in Alex Barron, but what about the rest of the line?

14
by BlueStarDude (not verified) :: Wed, 11/02/2005 - 10:18am

Have to agree with #10. Even learning a new position, Matt Jones's DPAR is on the plus side (0.3), and that's good enough for third among rookie WRs (min. 25 passes) behind Troy Williamson (4.9) and Brandon Jones (2.1).

15
by Ned Macey :: Wed, 11/02/2005 - 3:27pm

I'm not saying Matt Jones can never be good, as the transition could take a few years. For this year, however, they should really stop trying to feature him when they have Wilford. Also, a quick scan of the second list of receivers, those who haven't had enough passes attempted to them, I found B. Edwards, C. Roby, and C. Henry with a better DPAR. The later 2 (and B. Jones for that matter) were all taken in the 3rd round or later I think.

As for the Rams offensive line, Barron struggled at times with Hayward who they moved over to that side to avoid Pace, but the announcers thought Hayward was dominating him, which I do not agree with at all. Martin had fewer of the tradiitonal 7-step drops that Bulger runs, so they didn't have to be as strong in pass protection. Also, a great deal of Jackson's yards were on a few big plays, and he was getting stuffed a fair amount.

16
by Jason McKinley (not verified) :: Wed, 11/02/2005 - 3:47pm

Re: 13...

James, before Alex Barron entered game three (late in the third quarter), the Rams had allowed a sack every eight drop backs. Since then they have allowed a sack every 23 drop backs. It isn't a coincidence. He's that much better than the guys he replaced. He looks better in pass protection than Ryan Tucker, Kyle Turley or Fred Miller (the three best right tackles during the "Greatest Show" era). Pretty impressive for a rookie.

17
by B (not verified) :: Wed, 11/02/2005 - 4:53pm

Re #16: On the other hand, he nearly cost the Rams the game with three straight penalties to take them out of field goal range, including a play where he stepped in front of a pass to Faulk and tried to catch it.

18
by jim's apple pie (not verified) :: Wed, 11/02/2005 - 4:55pm

Re: 8

I completely agree with you. The Jaguars have always been the "leftover" team for me the last couple of years. I don't think about them often, they're players never seem to make much of an impression on me, and I always pick their games wrong. Their whole offense is just sort of, I don't know ... blah. Leftwich, Taylor, Smith ... you'd think it would all add up to something, but it doesn't.

19
by NELPHONIOUS OF pENNEFIELDE (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 1:13pm

Let's see if the Jags can put up 30 points once with the easiest remaining 2005 schedule, after surpressing the Texan juggernaut.