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?
19 Dec 2006
by Ned Macey
A week ago, after the New Orleans Saints demolished Dallas on Sunday night, fans began to ask: Is New Orleans the best team in the NFC? Finally, the Saints were getting the respect they craved all season. Bolstered by this respect, they promptly dumped a home game to the 5-9 Washington Redskins.
The true quality of the 2006 New Orleans Saints lies somewhere between these two performances. They have earned their NFC South title, but probably do not have enough to make the Super Bowl.
The Redskins, meanwhile, have pulled out of their season-long death spiral and returned to something resembling normalcy. Their porous defense has improved since mid-season, and they can see their future in Jason Campbell. Five starts into his career, definitive judgments about Campbell's career are very premature. One thing clear after Sunday is that Campbell brings a dimension to the offense that Mark Brunell was incapable of providing.
The game was marked by a sound defensive game plan from Gregg Williams. The well-respected coordinator has overseen one of the worst defenses of his coaching career. The Redskins pass defense has been shredded repeatedly throughout the season, proving that the best coaching in the world does not overcome poor talent.
A season ago, Washington ranked fourth in the league in DVOA defense, and third against the pass. Before Sunday's win, they ranked 26th overall and 32nd against the pass. Shawn Springs, their top cornerback, missed the first five games. At safety, the ill-advised decision to bring in free agent Adam Archuleta completely backfired. They tried veteran Troy Vincent, but his best days are behind him. The Redskins have now turned to journeyman Vernon Fox, whose primary responsibility is simply making sure no receiver gets behind him. The pass defense has improved markedly since Fox entered the lineup.
Washington's defense was successful by keeping plays in front of them and getting pressure from their front seven. Drew Brees has rarely been sacked all season. The Redskins only got to him twice, but they applied constant pressure. By all accounts, left tackle Jammal Brown has played well all season. On Sunday, he was consistently harassed by Andre Carter, who played most downs at right defensive end. Meanwhile, linebacker Marcus Washington applied outside pressure from the other side on a series of linebacker blitzes. The Saints often empty their backfield, and Washington came untouched on a number of occasions.
The Saints passing offense has been amazing this year. Drew Brees is deservedly in the MVP discussion for a remarkable season. Surrounded by Joe Horn and a group of unknown receivers, Brees has been among the most effective quarterbacks this season. Big plays have been crucial to the Saints' success. Brees has 17 completions of 40 or more yards, the same number as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Philip Rivers combined. Washington rarely played their receivers tight, instead giving a comfortable cushion and staying in a zone. One of the few times they did play up close, Devery Henderson burst free but was unable to hold on to a potential 40-yard reception.
Without the big play, the Saints had to march patiently up and down the field. That proved impossible without Horn to run the underneath routes. Henderson has been a revelation, but his primary strength is the deep route. The Saints hit a number of passes to the amazing Marques Colston, but Washington was able to limit his yards after the catch. The absence of Horn had not been felt since he was originally injured at the end of October. On Sunday, however, the first option was often taken away, the deep pass was gone, and Brees was holding the ball too long. If Washington's strategy is copied, the Saints will have to work on developing a consistent mid-range game to their other receivers.
The other counterbalance to Washington's strategy is to run the ball effectively, but the Redskins were able to stop the run with only seven defenders. The Saints' two-headed backfield of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush combined for only 62 yards on 22 carries. These struggles in the run game are nothing new for Bush, but McAllister has been solid all season.
You do not need advanced statistics to see the difference between McAllister and Bush. McAllister, the less explosive back, averages 4.4 per carry, while Bush averages 3.2. Success rate measures successful runs based on down and distance. McAllister ranks fourth in the league in success rate; Bush ranks 44th. The big play potential is not even there for Bush in the run game, where he has yet to gain more than 18 yards. A poor rookie campaign does not foreclose the possibility he will develop into a consistent runner, but he is contributing nothing on the ground this year.
Of course, Bush has been a difference-maker the past two weeks in the passing game. Bush has been a key part of the passing attack all season, leading the team with 84 receptions. Other than the past two weeks, however, the receptions have been for minimal gain. He had a 74-yard reception against San Francisco and 61-yard reception against Dallas. His other 82 catches have averaged 6.9 yards per catch.
Does Bush attract the defense's attention? Certainly, but if you keep players deep and play zone, you limit the opportunity for Bush to be a difference-maker. Washington added a second piece by having their linebackers play him physically.
The Saints certainly have the talent at the skill positions to march patiently down the field, but on Sunday, it did not look like they had the offensive line. The offensive line has been a key to their offensive resurgence, but this group was unknown before the season for a reason. Only Brown returns from a year ago, and the only other players with experience are Jeff Faine and Jamar Nesbit. Faine anchored the "powerful" Cleveland offensive line last year. Nesbit started for the Chris Weinke and Rodney Peete Panthers.
For the season, this group has given up very few sacks, but that is largely a function of Brees' willingness to get rid of the ball. The two sacks on Sunday were a small percentage of the overall pressure. The Saints rank in the middle of the pack in Adjusted Line Yards. Bush dances too much in the backfield, but often he is dancing because there are no holes. This writer has not seen enough of the Saints to know if this mediocre play is a trend or one bad game, but the situation bears watching as the Saints head into the playoffs.
Washington will not be returning to the playoffs this year, but when they do return, it will be with Jason Campbell at quarterback. The second-year player definitely has a strong arm. His beautiful touchdown to Santana Moss was effortless. In fact, if you watch just the first ten yards after the ball is released, Campbell looks like an amazing quarterback. The problem, for now, is that the ball does not necessarily go towards his intended target. To say that accuracy is Campbell's primary is a problem is to say that Mark Brunell's arm was not particularly strong. Campbell is completing only 50.7 percent of his passes.
His low completion percentage on Sunday was in part due to an enormous number of deep throws. The Saints were down safety Omar Stoutmire, but they have been prone to giving up the big play all season. The Saints have given up 21 passes of 30 or more yards, tied for most in the league with Green Bay.
Washington scored their only touchdown on a deep pass play, but they controlled the game on the ground with Ladell Betts. The fifth-year player has been a solid back-up for a number of years, and now he is taking full advantage of his opportunity to start. Clinton Portis is one of the elite backs in the game, but Betts has matched his production. Portis ranks 12th in DVOA for 2006, Betts 11th. Betts gave up his opportunity to be this year's Chester Taylor, signing an extension to stay with Washington. He and Portis should form a potent one-two punch for the next several years. And yes, Betts' performance does make the T.J. Duckett trade even more ridiculous.
Betts has played well, but one cannot ignore the overall success of little-known running backs in the Al Saunders system. He also made a productive performer out of Derrick Blaylock. The offensive mastermind has been criticized because of the low point totals the Redskins have had this year. They rank 26th in the league in points scored. In DVOA, they are a much more respectable 12th. One major reason for the discrepancy is atrocious play in the red zone. They rank 30th in the NFL in red zone DVOA at -44.2%. That is Oakland Raiders bad. The ability to gain first downs in the middle of the field is important, but at some point, they need to start scoring touchdowns.
The dual problems of big play passes and consistent run gains could cripple any playoff hopes for the Saints. The big plays are nothing new, but the run defense has generally been solid if unspectacular. Defensive tackle Hollis Thomas was suspended two weeks ago for, according to him, using his asthma medication. His presence was missed on Sunday. With Thomas out, Washington gashed New Orleans when they ran up the middle. Betts gained 62 yards on seven carries up the middle. Thomas returns for the playoffs, and, he will be welcomed back with open arms. Remember, in the NFL, steroid abusers are not the scourge of the earth they are in other sports.
The Saints have a fighting chance in the playoffs because of their impressive offense. They have the best quarterback in the conference. The overall talent in the NFC playoffs, however, is tightly bunched. After Week 15, our weighted total DVOA stats have Dallas, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and the New York Giants bunched up between seventh and tenth. The Saints have as good a shot as making the NFC Championship as anyone else. One problem is their defense, which has been substantially worse than any likely NFC playoff team besides Seattle. Brees can call Peyton Manning to ask how entering the playoffs with a great quarterback and a below-average defense works out.
In no way does this detract from an amazing season in New Orleans. The Saints have shocked the world and are comfortably the best team in their division. The return of Horn, Stoutmire, and Thomas will make them much stronger. Sunday's game aside, they are capable of putting up points on any team in the league. But, having watched Washington win with a deep zone and active front four, it is hard to see the Saints going into Chicago and scoring enough points against the Bears' Cover-2.
As for the Redskins, their future is extremely dependent on the development of Campbell. Gregg Williams' track record with defenses makes it a reasonable assumption that the defensive unit will be substantially better a year from now. Offensively, Washington will be able to run the ball, but they need a consistent passing offense to return to the playoffs. Football Outsiders' quarterback projection system loves Campbell. A large part of that projection system is based on college completion percentage. That college success has not translated early in his NFL career. If the accuracy improves next year, the Redskins will make the NFC East even more competitive.
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.
(Ed. note: Many people were curious why Ned did not do last week's Any Given Sunday on the Saints' win over Dallas. That was my call, as he would have duplicated most of my comments about New Orleans from last week's DVOA commentary. So, to New Orleans fans, sorry that Ned didn't write about your team until it lost -- that's my fault, not his. -- Aaron Schatz)
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