Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
03 Dec 2013
by Mike Ridley
With Matt Cassel filling in for a concussed Christian Ponder, the Vikings came back from a 10-point deficit to beat the Chicago Bears in overtime. Cassel led scoring drives of 89 and 79 yards in the fourth quarter to help Minnesota force the extra period, which put a serious dent in the Bears' playoff hopes.
Even though Cassel quarterbacked the comeback and eventual victory, he was merely less bad than Ponder, not appreciably good. He finished 20-of-33 for 243 yards with a touchdown and a pick, netting him a DYAR of -1 and a -11.5% DVOA, which was in the bottom third of the league. Much of his negative value came from a Khaseem Greene interception at the Chicago 5-yard line. The pick came off the hands of Rhett Ellison, who appeared to have an easy score; however, the pass was thrown to Ellison's back shoulder, making the quick throw more difficult to handle. Ellison should have still come away with the catch, but to say the throw was perfect would be incorrect.
Cassel overcame the interception to Greene by excelling at deep and intermediate throws. On passes that traveled 15 yards or more downfield, he connected on six of his eight attempts for 128 yards and a DYAR of 40, fourth-best in the league last week. Coming into the game, the nine-year veteran was only 7-of-19 for 188 yards, two interceptions and -55 DYAR on similar passes.
Cassel's downfield throws were a welcome change of pace for the Vikings. Before leaving at halftime with concussion-like symptoms, Ponder led a mostly ineffective offense. Outside of a five-play, 90-yard touchdown drive, the Vikings gained just 33 yards on 21 plays, including two three-and-outs. The one scoring drive they did manufacture called for runs on four out of the five plays -- Cordarrelle Patterson's 33 yard touchdown run from the I-formation accounted for most of that, although Ponder did complete his one pass on the drive, a 32-yarder to Jerome Simpson.
Even with Ponder's deep completion to Simpson, he finished just 3-of-8 for 40 yards and a DYAR of -53, the sixth-lowest total of the week. With him at the helm, the Vikings accumulated a DVOA of -16.8%, including an atrocious -93.8% DVOA on pass plays. Cassel led four drives of nine-plays or longer, including a 13-play, 89-yard drive that brought the Vikings within three. He also produced positive DYARs in two of his three quarters. He may not be the long-term option in Minnesota, but his numbers in this game suggest he’s at least better than Ponder for the rest of the season. If only winning mattered in Minnesota right now!
Chicago won the stat line, but Minnesota won the battle of the scoreboard.
|Dewey Defeats VOA|
|Team||Off. VOA||Def. VOA||Special Teams VOA||Total VOA|
The Bears put up a lot of big individual numbers, such as 355 yards from Josh McCown, 120 yards on the ground from Matt Forte and an eye-popping 249 receiving yards from Alshon Jeffery, but were often unable to string together consistent drives. Despite amassing 480 yards of offense, the Bears punted on seven of their 14 drives with starting field position playing a big role. The Bears, who came into the game ranked 11th in starting field position, had two drives that spanned at least 40 yards end in punts due to starting inside their own 15-yard line.
With 2:40 left in the game and the Vikings trailing by three, Cassel and the Vikings took the field at their own 9-yard line. After fumbling on first down and having a pass batted down on third down, the Vikings faced an improbable fourth-and-11 at their own 8-yard line. With the game on the line, Cassel dropped back and delivered a dart to Simpson at the 28-yard line. With a new set of downs and room to breathe, Cassel was able to drive the Vikings down to the Chicago 12-yard line before Blair Walsh kicked the game-tying field goal with 20 seconds left.
Obviously, there's a lot to be said about some of the coaching decisions that Leslie Frazier and Marc Trestman made when it came to kicking field goals in overtime. Scott Kacsmar covers those issues over in his Clutch Encounters column.
On Sunday, Alshon Jeffery rewrote the Chicago Bears record books ... again. With a 12-catch, 249-yard performance, Jeffery surpassed his own club record for most receiving yards in a game in Chicago Bears history. By doing so, he also became just the fifth player in league history to record two games with at least 200 yards and a receiving touchdown in the same season (Josh Gordon also accomplished this feat Sunday in his game against Jacksonville).
The rate that Jeffery has been improving has Chicago fans excited for the future. In his rookie campaign, he was able to net a DYAR of 97, but caught just 50 percent of his 48 targets on the year, as well as averaging just 2.7 yards after the catch. In 2013, his DYAR has nearly doubled to 193, which is 20th in the league, while improving his catch rate to 60 percent. His yards after the catch, while still below league-average, has also risen to 4.8. Maybe the most important facet of his development is that his 118 targets has helped take some of the focus away from Brandon Marshall, who led the league in target percentage last season.
Even with all his progress, Jeffery is still far from a polished player. He flashes the big-play ability and incredible hands, like he displayed on his amazing 46-yard touchdown reception, but like most young receivers, he lacks consistency. Despite having a DYAR near 200, he has five games without a positive DYAR. Even on Sunday’s record-setting performance, Jeffery went hiding at times. After having three catches for 145 yards in just the third quarter, he went untargeted in the critical fourth quarter and had just two catches (on two targets) for 15 yards in overtime.
Chicago’s inability to pull out a win on the road likely puts them on the outside looking in for the playoffs. They now trail Detroit by a game in the standings and also lose the head-to-head tiebreaker. Their remaining schedule doesn’t offer many favors either, with Dallas, Philadelphia and Green Bay all ranking in the top 13 in DVOA through Week 12.
The Bears will hope a strong return by Jay Cutler can vault them back into the playoffs. At 6-6 and two games behind San Francisco for the final wild card spot, the Bears will likely need to win out to have a chance. Although Josh McCown’s strong play has ignited talks of a quarterback controversy in Chicago, the Bears have averaged just 22 points per game in his starts and have actually seen their offensive DVOA drop from fifth (16.5%) to eighth (10.8%) since McCown entered the lineup.
Third-and-long situations are a large factor in the drop. On third-and-7 or longer, McCown is picking up just 21 percent of third downs through the air, whereas Cutler was picking up over 36 percent due to completing nearly three-fourths of his passes. Cutler's DYAR of 134 in those situations ranks 10th in the league; McCown's DYAR of 6 is 28th. So while McCown has been able to accumulate impressive counting stats, his inability to continue drives makes Cutler the clear choice for the Bears' playoff hunt.
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