Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
03 Oct 2006
by Ned Macey
When the Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars got together last Sunday, most people assumed that a defensive struggle would ensue. The Redskins for the past several years had been a dominant defense that was supported by an average-at-best offense. Instead, a shootout broke out featuring the proficient offense Washington envisioned when they hired Al Saunders. The Jaguars kept up by going to the air and taking advantage of a suspect Washington pass defense. In the end, one big play was enough to get Washington back into the playoff discussion and slow down the Jacksonville bandwagon.
The Redskins' return to the playoffs last year following years of mediocre play was greeted in some circles as a fluke. The team struggled to score points in the postseason, totaling 27 in two games. Quarterback Mark Brunell, a disaster in 2004, looked old and tired against good defenses in the playoffs last season.
Always aggressive, owner Daniel Snyder brought in Saunders, the highly successful offensive coordinator of the Chiefs. The early results were dreadful. No team looked worse in the preseason than the Redskins, and they opened up the season with two anemic offensive performances in losses to Minnesota and Dallas.
Of course, Clinton Portis was injured in the first preseason game and had only ten carries during the two regular season losses. Equally important, a team does not learn an offensive system overnight. An easy win over the Texans was dismissed by the quality of the competition. No such critique can be leveled on Sunday's game, as the Jaguars had given up only 31 offensive points in their first three games, including a shutout of the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers.
The Redskins may experience more growing pains as the season progresses, but Saunders' offense was in full effect on Sunday. His offenses in Kansas City were always led by a dominating running game, and Washington resembled those great Kansas City offenses on Sunday. Portis and backup Ladell Betts totaled 149 yards on 38 carries. Those are not record-setting numbers, but they kept Washington consistently in good third-down distances against a tough defense. Brunell faced only one third down longer than six yards in the first half.
Keeping the down-and-distance manageable is essential for making Brunell an effective quarterback. Saunders mixed in bootlegs and rollouts, as Brunell throws well on the run. He threw numerous screens to the running backs and tight end Chris Cooley to keep the Jacksonville pass rush honest. For the game, Brunell completed 18 of 30 passes for 329 yards. Coming into the game, opposing quarterbacks had completed less than 50 percent of their passes with five interceptions against the Jaguars.
All this analysis ignores the real star of the game, Santana Moss. Moss was one of the best receivers in football a year ago, and none of that has changed with the arrival of Saunders. He only caught four balls, but three went for touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime. The Redskins seem content to get the ball to Moss within the scope of their offense rather than forcing balls to their "playmaker" as they sometimes did a year ago. Throwing predominately underneath to backs and tight ends eventually creates a situation where the defense momentarily takes their eyes off of Moss. Every time they blinked on Sunday, Moss was in the end zone. Nobody outside of Steve Smith can hit a defense quicker for a big play.
Moss is a special player, but it is hard to overlook the connection between Washington's success and the return of Portis. He carried the offense a year ago and was among the most effective running backs in football. In Saunders' scheme, he has the chance to be the dominant force he was in Denver. Portis is quick, and he's hard to bring down in space. He was featured on a series of pitches and stretch plays, consistently getting to the corner for substantial gains. The Redskins offensive line is the same group that was mostly average a year ago. On Sunday, they looked quick and were able to get out in front of the backs. As a result, Jacksonville's enormous defensive tackles were neutralized.
Before the Redskins start printing playoff tickets, they still need to sort out problems on their once-stout defense. They did cough up 30 points to an offense that had totaled 23 the previous two weeks. For two years, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has overseen one of the most ferocious defenses in football. So far this year, they are a below average unit. This ranking is largely attributable to an atrocious pass defense that desperately misses Shawn Springs.
When Washington made its famous Champ Bailey (and a second-round pick) for Clinton Portis trade, they backed it up by signing Springs. Over the past two years, Springs has played at a high level. Paying top dollar for Springs, Portis, and many others leaves Washington short of depth. With Springs sidelined, the Redskins pass defense has been inept. Too much Kenny Wright and Mike Rumph is never a good thing.
Byron Leftwich responded by shredding the Redskins for 289 yards and three touchdowns. The Redskins thought it best to go after Leftwich and blitzed him consistently. The pressure did result in four sacks, but whenever Leftwich's line held, he had open receivers. Jacksonville never threatened on the ground, and Washington still was unable to defend the pass. Jacksonville had three fourth-quarter scoring drives that featured a total of one rushing attempt. Until Springs returns, look for opposing teams to spread the field, set up in the shotgun, and beat the Redskins through the air.
The Jaguars offense functioned well through the air, except on third down. For the past two years, the Jaguars consistently performed better on that most-important down than they did on first or second. For most teams, consistently outperforming first and second down performance on third down is impossible. The Jaguars defied this trend the last two seasons, but the numbers may be catching up with them now.
The Jaguars went 2-for-13 on third down against Washington, and for the season, they are 22-for-60. A year ago according to our advanced statistic DVOA, the Jaguars were an average offense on first and second down and become the Indianapolis Colts on third down. So far this season, they are just an average offense.
The Jaguars will see 2-for-13 and discuss how they need to get back to "running the ball" to make third downs more manageable. The beauty of DVOA, however, is that it takes the length of each third down into account. By insisting on running the ball poorly on the first two downs a year ago, they asked the impossible of Leftwich. The fact that he often delivered in those situations is admirable but not sustainable.
Returning to the ground game is a way of putting the offense on Fred Taylor's old shoulders. Taylor was a great player, but he no longer is even an average running back. He is 30 years old, has not had a positive DVOA since 2002, and is averaging 3.6 yards per carry this season. He is a drag on the offense, and giving him 300 carries this season would be an enormous mistake.
The obvious solution is Maurice Jones-Drew, the dynamic rookie who destroyed the Colts and then added a 51-yard touchdown reception last week. Considering the substandard production from Taylor, more carries for Jones-Drew is a viable option. Still, running on the Colts is something that few running backs have had trouble with this year. Whether the slight Jones-Drew is capable of running between the tackles is still to be determined. (Of course, the same thing was said about Warrick Dunn and Tiki Barber when they were young, and those two shifty backs are doing well for themselves.)
Defensively, the Jaguars are very good but not great, just the same as a year ago. Their destruction of Pittsburgh was largely aided by Ben Roethlisberger's poor form. Against Indianapolis, they always play well because they are physical with the Colts receivers. The problem for the Jaguars, however, is that their physical play comes with a price: susceptibility to get beaten deep. The Redskins were content to take advantage of the Jaguars linebackers underneath and wait to attack the cornerbacks for big plays.
Moss beat Brian Williams for several big gains, and Brandon Lloyd pulled in a 33-yard reception. The week before, the Colts just missed on multiple big pass plays. The Cowboys hit on several big plays in Week 1, including a 51-yard completion to Terry Glenn. A team that specializes in low-scoring games cannot afford to consistently give up big plays.
The defense is indeed one of the better ones in the league, but it is not at the level of Chicago or Baltimore and could not support a substandard offense. The outside linebackers are both average players, and after watching tapes of the Redskins' performance, other teams will attack them in the passing game.
As a result, the season will likely come down to the continued development of Leftwich and his young wide receivers. Reggie Williams continued his breakout season against Washington, but Matt Jones was almost invisible. He is battling injuries, but even healthy, he is still more potential than production. Ernest Wilford, the team's most productive receiver on a per-play basis a season ago, seems to be running routes without aggression and has dropped several balls. The Jaguars will need consistent production from these players to create the above-average offense they need to return to the playoffs. Otherwise, they will be looking at a step back from their impressive 2005 season.
Washington, meanwhile, has developed an excellent offense and ironically needs the defense to get in line with previous production. Portis and Betts form a potent one-two combination, and Brunell is playing at a high level within the structure of the offense. Springs is still a few weeks away from returning, and he will be missed against the Giants this weekend. With that trip to the Meadowlands and a trip to Indianapolis in Week 7, Washington could be 3-4 before their bye despite ranking among the ten best teams in football. While they certainly can win in Indianapolis, it would behoove the Redskins to win this weekend in New York, during the first half of an NFC East doubleheader that is truly worth watching.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
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