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09 Oct 2012

Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Packers

by Rivers McCown

There comes a time in every writer's life where he has to admit that he was wrong. That he misjudged a situation, that he didn't see what was to be, or that he wrote something that made no sense.

This is my Reggie Wayne comment from Football Outsiders Almanac 2012:

The end of a wide receiver’s career is a very fickle thing to judge. How many years did Derrick Mason and Jimmy Smith defy the odds to keep putting up big seasons? Wayne slipped a bit statistically last season, but it’s almost impossible to tell how much because of the confines of the Indianapolis offense. You are probably going to get more short balls thrown at you when your quarterback crew is Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, and Dan Orlovsky. Either Andrew Luck’s arm talent opens up his deep throws again, or Wayne has truly lost something and will find himself out of the league in a couple of years.

I shrouded this comment in couched language, because I learned my lesson in writing off Steve Smith in Football Outsiders Almanac 2011, but my sense was that Wayne was on the downside of his career. The fact that the Colts wanted to keep him seemed more like a marriage of necessity than one of thoughtful thinking from either side. The Colts looked destined to need a rebuilding year. Wayne, in his mid-30's, looked like a player who needed to find a contender to land on. Even if he rebounded, he probably wouldn't be a part of Indy's next playoff-contending team.

But, with Indianapolis letting Pierre Garcon and Jacob Tamme walk, and returning no other receivers of any value, they needed Wayne. Wayne didn't need Indianapolis, and didn't owe them anything, but he was loyal to the end.

Quick Reads went over the statistics from this game, but take a second look: 13 catches on 20 attempts, 212 yards, and the game-clinching touchdown. Everyone was in a tizzy about how Mr. Luck performed in this game -- and don't get me wrong, he was stellar under a lot of pressure -- but Wayne was the player that broke the Packers secondary. Charles Woodson couldn't check him. Sam Shields couldn't check him. Zones couldn't stop him. The single biggest reason that Indianapolis won this game was that Wayne was the best player on the field.

And don't look now, but at 2-2, aren't they right in the thick of the playoff race? The AFC is wide-open outside of Houston, Baltimore, and New England. The Bills have played historically-bad levels of defense the last two weeks, the Bengals have defensive issues of their own, the Chargers just dropped a game to a team that was 0-4, and the Jets are sinking without Darrelle Revis. Why couldn't the Colts use their three remaining games against Tennessee and Jacksonville to get up to nine wins or so?

If they do get there, Wayne won't just be a piece of the puzzle -- he'll probably be the main reason.

By the VOA

Can we make it five-for-five on Dewey games? We can indeed.

Dewey Defeats Colts
Team OFF VOA DEF VOA ST VOA TOTAL VOA
GB 21.6% -8.2% -9.6% 20.2%
IND -8.2% 10.3% -5.2% -23.7%

Obviously, this gap is much smaller in DVOA because of opponent adjustments. On a play-by-play basis, these teams were very similar on Sunday. The Packers gained 5.8 yards per play compared to the Colts' 5.2, and almost all of that advantage was in the ground game. The biggest difference was that the Colts possessed the ball 35 minutes of the game -- and it wasn't a case of them running out the clock, since they stormed back with a second-half comeback. This was a very weird game statistically, because Green Bay scored a pair of quick touchdowns (two and four plays), along with four three-and-outs and a third-down pick on another third play of a drive. It's rare to see a team get so many more plays than another when they are both performing roughly the same by average yards per play.

Call of the Game

This game didn't really have a ballsy decision or particularly noteworthy mistake by a coach, unless you count the Packers having the play clock expire with 13 seconds left in regulation, forcing them to use their last timeout and stop attempting to advance the ball further on Mason Crosby's attempt to tie the game. Since we can't really divvy blame up for that without making guesses, I won't.

However, if you'll allow me to expand the meaning of the word "call," the Colts were the beneficiaries of a very questionable pass interference call on Sam Shields. With 1:59 left in the third quarter, the Colts were at the boundaries of field-goal range when Luck lofted a pass to Donnie Avery that was practically uncatchable. Despite this, and the fact that from my vantage, Avery shoved Shields in the back, the officials ruled that Shields was at fault. The resulting yardage put the ball in the red zone, and four plays later, the Colts cut the Green Bay lead to just two points.

Spotlight on: Green Bay's offense

If there is one truism that I think has taken hold in the media the last few years, it's the fact that a passing game does not need a good offensive line (or, in particular, a good left tackle) to win a Super Bowl. In a way, this almost feels like splashback from The Blind Side. Yeah, the quarterback is still the most important player on the field. Yeah, Jermon Bushrod probably doesn't make a Pro Bowl if he's protecting Alex Smith instead of Drew Brees.

But there is still a very noticeable difference between having an acceptable offensive line and having a poor one. If you happened to watch Kevin Kolb last Thursday night, you know what I am talking about. Well, Green Bay's deep passing game has ground to a halt this year, and the logical bogeyman, given how often Aaron Rodgers has been sacked despite his good pocket presence, is the Green Bay line. Outside of Josh Sitton, there isn't a player on this unit that has played up to his potential this season. Jeff Saturday was supposed to come in and pick up the slack for the departed Scott Wells, but that hasn't happened yet. Beyond that, the unit returns just about every player who started for them last season, minus the aging Chad Clifton.

Through Week 4, Green Bay had allowed an Adjusted Sack Rate of 9.6 percent (tied for second-to-last), as compared to just 7.4 percent (23rd place) last year. The fact that the Packers have been able to continue having moderate success in the air is in large part a tribute to how special Rodgers is. However, when a quarterback loses pocket time, they also lose the ability to have receivers run the entire route tree, and that means the passing game needs to key on three- and five-step drops. If you want to take a shot play behind a shoddy offensive line, they need to commit more blockers.

Green Bay did this on the very first play of the third quarter in this game, running a play-action pass out of an I-Formation set with two receivers to the right. When the dust settled at the line, Indianapolis rushed four, and Green Bay countered with eight blockers. It might not surprise you to learn that despite having all the time in the world to work with, Rodgers could not find anybody open. He scrambled to the sideline, threw the ball away, and the Packers got hit with a holding penalty for good measure. That drive ended in a third-down interception, and the Colts went right down the short field to score a touchdown.

(I figured we didn't need any pictures this week because you all know what a Rodgers sack looks like after the Seahawks-Packers Monday Night tilt.)

Here is what our statistics make of the Packers passing game on passes that go 15 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage:

Green Bay Passing Game 2011-2012
Team Completions-Attempts Yards DPI/Yards DVOA
GB 2011 49-of-101 1666 5/105 131.5%
GB 2012 7-of-21 201 2/45 19.7%

Keep in mind that the average DVOA on deep passes is roughly 55 percent. This is mostly because when deep passes don't get attempted, they become sacks, dumpoffs, and the like. So Green Bay has gone from about 75 percent better than average on these throws to about 35 percent worse.

There are a few mitigating factors beyond the offensive line. We would naturally expect the Green Bay offense to regress a little bit after how well they played last season. Greg Jennings has alternated between injured and ineffective (-18.0% DVOA). Jordy Nelson was never going to repeat what he did in 2011. You get the picture: this team was never likely to be 2011 good again, but they should be doing much better than this.

Rodgers will keep the offense reasonable either way, and Green Bay's defensive rebound from 2011 will keep them in the thick of contention, but the aura of offensive invincibility they had in 2011 has faded. Step one to getting it back will be finding a way to let Rodgers hit a deep ball again, and that starts up front.

NFL teams may not need good offensive line play to win a Super Bowl, but they definitely need adequate.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 09 Oct 2012

21 comments, Last at 11 Oct 2012, 1:20pm by Kevin

Comments

1
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Tue, 10/09/2012 - 3:51pm

OK, I'm missing something: why is there such a massive difference on special teams VOA? OK, Green Bay had what, one decent kickoff return, but it was decent, not fantastic, and otherwise the two teams look pretty even. I don't see anything on special teams to indicate that there should be much of a difference at all.

3
by ammek :: Tue, 10/09/2012 - 4:03pm

The Packers put four of their seven punts inside the 20. Masthay is having a great season.

6
by Aaron Schatz :: Tue, 10/09/2012 - 5:23pm

Sorry, the table is marked wrong; I'll go fix the header there.

2
by ammek :: Tue, 10/09/2012 - 4:02pm

Interesting, but I have a couple of disagreements. Firstly, I think both players on the left side of the Packers' offensive line, guard TJ Lang and tackle Marshall Newhouse, are "playing up to their potential". In Newhouse's case, that merely means he is adequate — like many fans, I was expecting him to be terrible, as he was for most of last season. Lang is one of the offense's most consistent strengths. The main problems in protection are to do with Saturday, right tackle Bryan Bulaga who has been terrible, and blocking by the tight ends and running backs (not a new development).

I think the Packers' offensive woes have more to do with the receivers than with the protection or Rodgers (though all are factors). There's been a lot of focus in Packer media about Rodgers' inaccuracy and poor decision-making. But his completion rate is actually higher than last year's — at 68.8% it's a fraction off the league lead. And you only need to watch the games to see that he's going through his progressions and making prudent throws (his interception rate, though worse than last year, is similar to his 2008 and 2010 seasons). As the atrocious sack rate confirms, he's not panicking, but for some reason he's not going deep (14% of his passes, which ranks 30th of 33 qualifiers). I think the low success rate and low DVOA on deep passes are above all a function of a small sample size.

Rather than focus on the throws Rodgers is not making, I'm inclined to look at the ones he is. The striking statistic is that Green Bay averages 10.2 yards per completion, 29th in the league. Rodgers' average pass travels 4.1 yards in the air, fewer than every other elite QB. Watching the games, it seems that many of the short passes he throws are a really tight fit. The receivers aren't gaining separation on shallow routes — there's no reason to believe they're any better on deep routes.

It's going to get worse for the Packers before it gets better. Up next are the #2 and #3 pass defenses by DVOA (Houston and St Louis), both on the road, and Arizona a fortnight later at Lambeau. What the team really needs to do is redesign its offense (as well as acquiring a replacement-level running back and a defense that can hold onto a three-score lead) because the routes that were getting receivers open last year have been sussed out. The much-hyped receiving corps is actually rather thin, with Jennings out, Driver barely used, and Finley hobbled and out of sorts. Wayne made them all look terribly pedestrian.

4
by Kevin :: Tue, 10/09/2012 - 4:23pm

Packers took their final timeout with 8 not 13 seconds left in the game on a 2nd and 10, rather than 13 seconds. Granted with the line problems they were having they might still have elected to just go for the FG, but 13 seconds is plenty of time for a designed sideline throw with very little risk of running out of clock (probably even enough for an inbound tackle that didn't get the first down and a spike to stop the clock).

Also, while I agree that GB got completely jobbed on the PI when Avery shoved Shields in the back, they also got away with a PI by Woodson on Wayne in the end-zone (which would have turned a 2nd and goal from the ~7 to a 1st and goal from the 1). I feel GB had a MUCH better complaint in a the fumble caused by a blindside hit by Perry early in the 2nd quarter that was called roughing the passer, helmet-to-helmet.

The story of the game from my perspective was that Reggie Wayne was the best player on the field, the Colts were able to get significantly better penetration of the line in the second half (be it due to play call change on GB's part following the injury to Benson or an adjustment on the IND side - have to re-watch to see) and the reduction in interior penetration GB was getting once Raji went down.

5
by komakoma (not verified) :: Tue, 10/09/2012 - 4:56pm

Raji going down was really huge IMO. The subsequent drive basically consisted of consistent 8-yard carries by Donald Brown.

14
by Kyle Rodriguez (not verified) :: Thu, 10/11/2012 - 1:36am

Raji going down was huge for the Colts, but Browns runs were containment issues mostly for GB. He was bouncing consecutive runs outside for 8-12 yards.

8
by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Wed, 10/10/2012 - 8:06am

You beat me to pointing out the horrible no-call DPI on Woodson in the endzone. My first thought on the highly questionable Shields DPI when I saw it was "make up call".

15
by duh :: Thu, 10/11/2012 - 1:39am

The hit by Perry WASN'T called helmet to helmet, that is what the announcers said, but it ISN'T what the ref said. The Ref said 'use of the crown of the helmet on a defenseless player.'Perry clearly used the crown of his helmet to lead ... if you want to argue Luck wasn't a 'defenseless player' the rule is written as:

A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass;

Not to be a wiseguy I'm not sure I know exactly what that means .....in theory you could argue that until the QB takes off running he's in the act of throwing a pass.
When I saw the play live I personally thought Perry speared him and wasn't at all surprised by the flag. I do have to confess that I'm less sure of how I think about this play now.

You can clearly hear the ref's call at the link below.

http://tinyurl.com/92c9qbg

18
by Kyle Rodriguez (not verified) :: Thu, 10/11/2012 - 1:45am

I poured through the rule book today on this one as well. I don't like the "in the act of throwing" argument. It really doesn't make sense to me. The one thing that you could apply to the hit is roughing the passer due to Article 13, part 3:

"A defensive player must not use his helmet against a passer who is in a defenseless posture for example, (b) lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/”hairline” parts of the helmet against any part of the passer’s body."

This part says "defenseless posture" but later talks about defenders making "tackles" in the same instance, so I guess I could see the argument here. It's really inconsistent wording though.

19
by duh :: Thu, 10/11/2012 - 2:40am

Kyle,

Your cite seems much more on point than mine, thanks! The biggest issue to me was if you thought they called helmet to helmet it would be easy to understand thinking it was a horrendous call ....

21
by Kevin :: Thu, 10/11/2012 - 1:20pm

As a Colts fan I retract my feeling that GB got hosed on the call. Serves me right for believing the announcers would reliably relay information.

20
by Intropy :: Thu, 10/11/2012 - 3:48am

You can be considered to be in the act of throwing the pass even after you take off running. It's pretty poorly thought out since anyone with the ball in the backfield can make a high hit illegal merely by flipping the ball forward at the last possible second.

7
by bernie (not verified) :: Tue, 10/09/2012 - 6:57pm

The Raji injury seemed to me like it had the most effect on the game. After he was gone, the colts were suddenly able to run the ball again, and Andrew Luck was consistently able to step up in the pocket and avoid the outside rush, and find open receivers. In the first half, he wasn't able to do that very effectively.

Finley wasn't really much of a factor when he was in the game, so I don't think he was much of a loss.

9
by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Wed, 10/10/2012 - 8:29am

Maybe it's just my extreme homerism, but I'm very surprised to see Green Bay's VOA so much higher than the Colts' in this game. Maybe a touch higher, but 44%? Watching it live, I had the sense that the Colts were playing on a similar level to the Packers; not so much in the first half, but taking the entire game as a whole.

Obviously I'm missing something. I understand that VOA is a play by play stat, rather than a counting stat, but it strikes me that in this case the raw stats may tell the story of the game more accurately than VOA. Just looking at the final game stats without the score, one would probably guess that the Colts won by about a touchdown.

10
by Paul R :: Wed, 10/10/2012 - 10:24am

Would like to see a spotlight on the Colts offense sometime.
As an Indy resident, I watch all of the Colts games and see other teams just a few times a year. Therefore, it's very difficult for me judge the quality of Andrew Luck.
All those years of Manning, followed by Curtis Painter & co., really throws off the curve.(Drive a Ferrari for ten years, then spend a year driving a Chevy Vega, then test-drive a Honda Accord. Can you tell if it's a "good" car?)

Andrew looks good to me. I worry that he gets too excited on big plays and puts too much muscle on the ball when he throws it, but that should settle down with time. However, as I said, it's hard for an Indy resident to be objective. The data is too scrambled.

11
by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Wed, 10/10/2012 - 11:10am

Yeah, I'm in the same boat. Quick Reads this week actually looked at it from a good angle -- comparing Luck's performance in his first 4 games vs other QBs. As a Colts fan, that's about the only way you can get a somewhat objective take on how he's doing. Comparing him against either MVP-level Peyton Manning or Never-Nervous Curtis is a fruitless exercise.

12
by Purds :: Wed, 10/10/2012 - 12:54pm

Agreed. I worry about his really low completion percentage (55%?)

16
by Kyle Rodriguez (not verified) :: Thu, 10/11/2012 - 1:39am

The low completion % isn't really something to be worried about, IMO. A huge part of it is the fact that outside of Wayne, none of the receivers are getting open. Luck's YAC% is 32nd in the league right now, and the biggest part of it is because he's throwing into really tight windows.

13
by BJR :: Wed, 10/10/2012 - 5:22pm

The Colts still have to play New England and Houston twice, but the rest of their schedule consists mostly of the worst teams in the league according to DVOA. They play Jets, Browns, Titans(x2), Jags, Bills, and Chiefs. That wildcard spot is a possibility.

17
by Kyle Rodriguez (not verified) :: Thu, 10/11/2012 - 1:40am

And the HOU games are Week 15 and 17. HOU could realistically have a bye locked up by week 15, and a #1 spot by week 17.