Which receivers were truly most effective with the ball in their hands last season? We look at the leaders in YAC+ for 2014 and the last nine years.
24 Nov 2011
compiled by Rivers McCown
As most of you know, this is the seventh year of the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project, where a group of volunteers (and FO staffers as well) charts every game of the season to track things that the play-by-play does not track, as well as create new statistics. This is where we get our numbers on defensive coverage, or how often teams blitz or run play-action fakes. Occasionally you'll see these stats during the season, but the turnaround time is slow, so our database is usually behind the actual games by a couple weeks.
Then again, we don't need the database to learn something from the game charting project, because all that tape-watching turns us into scouts as much as statisticians. We asked a few of our game charters to share their thoughts on the games and teams they've charted so far this season. The comments below represent their opinions, not those of any FO writer. Most charters concentrate on a specific team or two, so not every team is represented. But if you want to know not just which teams are winning, but why, the insights are quite interesting.
I know this has nothing to do with game charting, but I was part of the Nation who couldn't wait for the late Al Davis to give up control. I'm still shell-shocked that it actually happened. I joked about it for so long, and now here we are. That reality is here. It just feels weird to not have a once-great maverick-turned-sea-monster lurking from afar.
The Raiders have been a respectably mediocre team, and the advanced metrics back that up. But they're currently in position to win the AFC West, and if they smell playoffs, do they start playing out of their minds for their deceased owner and buck all mathematical projections? With the front office drinking the Hue Jackson Kool-Aid and making that stupid trade, I'm hoping they do something ridiculously good this year, because I'm legitimately scared for the subsequent years. It's been a bad ten years here. I guess it can't get any worse ... right?
Oh, one more thing. Breaking news: Tamba Hali is really good.
The Ravens have been a really interesting and frustrating team to watch this year as a fan. It’s hard to say they play to their level of competition, because realistically they’re playing above the competition in games against good teams, and playing below it in games against bad teams. That makes for a lot of fans saying "This team should be undefeated, like Green Bay!" That’s of course not realistic, but it’s at least easy to understand where the typical Ravens fan with this view is coming from, after having beaten Pittsburgh twice, the Jets, and the Texans by a combined 121-58 score.
Charting the Ravens has been equally frustrating, because at times it’s glaringly obvious what’s behind a lot of the poor play. The problem is I don’t believe it’s for the reasons I hear most of my fellow Ravens fans exclaim. Most of the blame follows some form of "Cam Cameron isn’t running the ball!" or "Joe Flacco isn’t a good quarterback!"
Okay, Flacco’s having a bad year. That’s almost indisputable. And I’ll delve into that more in a bit. But the constant that I’m seeing while charting lies with the battles in the trenches.
Offensively, in the games the Ravens are winning, the blockers are doing a better job protecting Flacco. Part of that has to do with Flacco getting the ball out quickly in some of the halves I’m charting. For instance, I charted the second half of the Cardinals game, and much of that second half was spent with Flacco taking shotgun snaps, making a quick drop, and getting it out to a receiver. In their losses –- for the halves I’ve charted -– the offensive line, backs, and tight ends are blowing blocks at nearly 2.5 times the rate that they’re blowing them in Ravens wins. That’s unquestionably one of the contributing factors to why Flacco’s quarterback rating is 82.9 in the games they win, but 61.1 in the games they’ve lost.
Similarly, the pressure the defensive front is applying to the opposing quarterbacks is dramatically different in the halves I’ve charted. The Ravens are putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks at over three times their rate in losses when they win. Their base stats for the season are impressive. But in the games they’ve won, they are generally making the lives of quarterbacks miserable. The only exception was Ben Roethlisberger’s impressive game in Pittsburgh. This team wins games when they rattle their opposing passer. In their three losses, the opposing quarterbacks probably didn't even need to wash their jerseys.
One of the lines Ravens management is towing seems to be that Flacco’s quarterback rating and completion rate are down because they’re throwing deep more, so he should be expected to complete fewer passes. I do believe they’re going downfield more, but I don’t believe that is causing the drop in completion rate, because I don’t think they’re going downfield a lot more than they were in previous years. Yards per completion would show a difference if they were, and Flacco’s 11.6 yards per completion this season matches the 11.6 yards he produced over his previous three years.
I haven’t seen his DVOA on these throws down-field, but I would bet he’s far less effective this year than he was last year. Just watching him, I’m seeing a ton of misses down-field. The most common sight for me is seeing him drop back, rainbow a nice-looking pass downfield, watching the camera pan to a shot of Torrey Smith streaking downfield with a yard or two separating himself and the nearest defensive back, only to jump and fall flat on his face stretching for a ball that lands three to five yards in front of him. For years, Ravens fans have ached for a receiver that can get behind defenses and take advantage of Flacco’s big arm -- it turns out that once the Ravens find said receiver, Flacco is having an off-year with his deep accuracy.
Calais Campbell, DE -- He dominates at times. No offensive guard can handle him one-on-one in pass rush situations, and he's also solid against the run. Campbell sometimes gets too high, so he can get moved around in the run game. He's also blocked three field goals already.
Daryl Washington, ILB -- Washington has great speed and instincts; he makes decisions and flies to the ball. He could have a couple of touchdowns if he had better hands.
Patrick Peterson, CB/PR -- Peterson is still very rough around the edges, especially in zone coverage. He gets lost in bunch or combo route schemes when responsible for zones rather than man coverage. The talent just oozes though. He can be a bit too physical at times, and gets called for a lot of penalties because his hands are all over wide receivers.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR -- He's caught three tipped passes this year for touchdowns. Tipped passes.
Levi Brown, OT -- I can't imagine that there's a worse offensive tackle starting in the league right now. He simply gives up way too many easy pressures and sacks. Brown can be a very good run blocker at times, but he just seems to lose focus on the field.
Brandon Keith, OT -- If there is a worse tackle than Brown, it's Keith. He's slow out of his stance, has bad technique, and generally plays lazy. Not a fun watch.
Kevin Kolb's Pocket Presence -- It's really fun to watch him when his panic mode is activated. Any kind of pressure will immediately lead to him running backwards (who teaches that?), and he has practically no awareness of where the rush is coming from and where the pocket is.
A.J. Jefferson, CB -- Jefferson's not very physical at all, and has no ball skills. He's a good athlete who gets into decent positions, but he simply can't make plays on the ball. Watching him try to cover Anquan Boldin was ugly, Boldin muscled him out of position for three or four back-shoulder balls in one quarter.
Ken Whisenhunt really wants to be a deep passing team, closer to the Martz-era Rams than the running reputation he brought from Pittsburgh. There are a lot of deep combination routes, and long-developing plays in the passing game. Whisenhunt will abandon the run game after a poor play or two -- almost as if he throws his hands up and says "oh well, I tried." He has a goood run-blocking offensive line that is poor in pass protection, but he seems to want to fight that.
Arizona has had three defensive coordinators in four years, and they're all trying to run variations on the LeBeau/Steelers 3-4. The personnel seams more suited for a 4-3 front, using Darnell Dockett as a penetrating three-technique player, but Whisenhunt is desperate to force the Pittsburgh-style of defense on this team. Which would be less of a problem if he had Dick LeBeau, or the Lamarr Woodley/James Harrison-type outside linebackers that make the system work.
Watching the Bears this year, I can say with a good amount of confidence that Tim Jennings is the most underrated defensive player in the NFL. He is solid in coverage, and a great fit for a Cover-2 team, but his best ability is his tackling. He is listed at 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, and I think that might be a stretch: However, through Week 11, I cannot remember Jennings missing an open-field tackle. He's made a couple of tackles in space as well, and some of those are stops that prevent a first down. Just last week, Mike Tolbert, who runs over people weekly, had Jennings in his cross hairs. Jennings wrapped up and stopped Tolbert two yards short of a first down. I was not a fan last year, but he has played great this season.
Frank Omiyale is the worst lineman in the NFL. By far. Watch the first Lions game, and you will know exactly what I am talking about. He was terrible when the Bears signed him, and he has regressed from there. When Jerry Angelo makes excuses about how no team did more to improve their offensive line play in the offseason, remember that he kept Omiyale -- which really undid all that positive momentum.
Mike Martz should be be commended on how much he has changed his play calls to fit what the Bears have. Their offense if running great now, and has been ever since be changed things up after the Saints game. HOWEVA (/Stephen A. Smith voice), you can still see the old Martz come out every once in awhile. For instance, when the Bears are up late, yet still have five or six pass plays in a row. Or when they get down early, and he totally abandons the run. Martz is doing much better, but he still needs his fix.
The Bears run the most vanilla defense in the league: they have their base set, their nickel set, and that's about it. All that changes is D.J. Moore comes in for Nick Roach in their nickel package. They will sub along the defensive line (usually a seven- or eight-man rotation), but the linebackers and defensive backs stay on throughout the game. It makes them great for charting though, so I am not complaining. It does, however, make it hard to chart teams like the Packers and Texans, with their 1-3-7 & 2-2-7 defensive alignments.
I totally understand and believe in the thinking that running backs can be found on the cheap, and that there is no need to overpay for them. To a point. There are a couple of exceptions, or you could say anomalies, that deserve any and all the money that is given to them. These backs can do everything (run, catch, block), are durable, and can play in a variety of offenses. I really feel there are only four of these backs in the NFL today: Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, LeSean McCoy, and Matt Forte. McFadden, Frank Gore, and Steven Jackson can never stay healthy. Michael Turner is getting old, and is not great is the passing game. We all know about Chris Johnson.
Jerry Angelo, please pay Matt Forte. You don't have to break the bank. But you have to keep him on the Bears. He makes your offense go. Marion Barber has been playing well in spot duty this year. But there is no way he could fill in fulltime and give the Bears all that Forte does. Please do the smart thing here.
A couple of observations from other teams.
My charting schedule has been pretty wacky this year, so this will be a list of quick notes on several different teams, rather than a detailed breakdown of any one squad.
Atlanta Falcons: I don't see much of Atlanta, so I didn't know a lot about left guard Garrett Reynolds going into this year. He was abysmal in the half I charted. One of the worst performances I've ever seen from an offensive lineman. I looked him up afterwards, expecting him to be a last-ditch injury replacement, a taxi squad guy forced into action. No, apparently Atlanta planned on using him as a starter, even though he was a healthy scratch for every game in 2010. He has since been benched for 2010 fourth-rounder Joe Hawley.
Dallas Cowboys: DeMarcus Ware's quickness off the line borders on superhuman. In Week 1, there were a few plays where he was in the backfield before the Jets' linemen even came out of their stance. And that game was in New York.
The Cowboys guards (Kyle Kosier and Bill Nagy, who is now on IR) have played pretty poorly. Felix Jones and Tashard Choice (now with the Bills) are both very good at picking blitzing defenders on pass plays. That said, when they do get beat, Tony Romo has a tendency to throw up ugly passes. Witness the interception he threw to New England's Kyle Arrington in Week 6, set up when Brandon Spikes used a great spin move to get by Choice. It wasn't Romo's fault there was a rusher in his face, but his response -– chucking up the ball like it was raw meat and Spikes was a hungry wolf -– was, um, not smart.
Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs' offensive line is not very good, so Todd Haley tries to compensate with cutesy personnel groups and motion. On one goal-line play, he had an extra lineman on the field, with a tight end and running back motioning out to wide receiver, just so Kansas City could run a dive play on first-and-goal from the 1. He also uses a lot of three-wideout sets, but almost always with one of the receivers lined up off the tackle's hip, in almost an H-back position. He also uses more seven- and eight-man protection groups than any other team I've ever charted. Problem is, the backs and tight ends can't predict which linemen are going to get beat, and often find themselves helping out where they're not needed while Chiefs quarterbacks are on the ground. It's not working, so they may as well start sending those extra blockers out as dumpoff receivers once in a while.
The Chiefs have also used cornerback/kick returner Javier Arenas as an offensive surprise. He's lined up at receiver and taken end arounds or fake handoffs, but has also lined up as a Wildcat quarterback for a rushing touchdown.
New York Jets: This is the first year where we've noted defensive personnel. I expected to see plenty of nickel defenses, but New York took it to extremes, routinely going to 2-2-7 personnel groups on third downs in the second half.
Oakland Raiders: Only charted one half, but center Samson Satele looked very bad, sometimes getting beat one-on-one, sometimes appearing to miss simple assignments.
On one screen pass against Kansas City, 325-pound Khalif Barnes tried to block the 197-pound Arenas -– and somehow got moved backwards.
Pittsburgh Steelers: I haven't watched the Steelers much, but it looks like Troy Polamalu is missing more tackles than he has in the past.
Maurkice Pouncey's ability to chip one defender, then fire out to the second level, really is outstanding.
Seattle Seahawks: Red Bryant is a 320-pound former tackle playing strongside end, and he lines up very wide sometimes. When you chart games, you realize how often tight ends wind up blocking defensive ends one-on-one, and what a bad idea that usually is against Seattle.
Seattle's young offensive line is still mistake-prone and unreliable, but when they work in concert, they're capable of great things. Marshawn Lynch's 11-yard touchdown against Atlanta in Week 4 and his 47-yard run against the Giants in Week 5 were textbook cases of picture-perfect run blocking.
It seems absurd that Bill Belichick is currently presiding over one of the worst defenses in the league. I mean, the man stopped the Greatest Show on Turf, right? There are issues at each level of the unit, from the line, to the linebackers, to the defensive backs, and it would appear that any team with an above-average passing attack can score enough points to beat the Patriots (see the Steelers, Bills, and Giants). While people are drawn to the cognitive dissonance between Belichick the Defensive Genius and his team’s poor defensive performance, the real issue is Belichick the general manager.
Going back a few years, the signings of Shawn Springs, Albert Haynesworth, Derrick Burgess, and Adalius Thomas yielded practically nothing -— not to mention Leigh Bodden and Tully Banta-Cain, who at least had one good year. Shaun Ellis can’t get on the field, and Chad Ochocinco is a non-factor. The draft busts have mounted the last few years, and it seems to be (hopefully?) (finally?) reaching rock bottom in 2011. The recent hits, Jerod Mayo, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung, are drastically outnumbered by the misses. Ron Brace and Jermaine Cunningham, who combined for a total of seven snaps against the Jets (Cunningham’s four came in garbage time), have yet to make any impression. Outside of Mayo and Matt Slater, a special teams player, the rest of the Patriots 2008 draft class is no longer with the team (BenJarvus Green-Ellis was signed as an undrafted free agent).
The Patriots persona revolves around the "next man up" mantra, where each player is a cog in the greater New England Panzer —- forged from steel in the fires of Mount Doom by Belichick, designed to run up the score and make the nation at-large hate them -— and everyone is replaceable. But there gets to be a point where the next man up playing slot corner is ... wide receiver Julian Edelman. Ten undrafted free agents started for the Patriots in that game versus the Jets, and after McCourty went down with an injury, all four starting defensive backs were UFAs -— an insane, insane position to be in, and one that also illustrates just how thin the Patriots are.
It reminds me a little of the free-wheeling, free-agent shopping Redskins days, where a solid unit would be crippled after a few injuries due to lack of depth. Except, you know, without all the big spending. You can scheme all you want, but at some point Phillip Adams (who?) has to make a play. Injuries have played a major role as well. Mayo and Spikes have both missed time due to injuries. Ras-I Dowling, who had been starting over Bodden, is on IR. McCourty and Chung are both currently injured. All of this has contributed to the Patriots' famed "No Video Intro Defense."
Watching New England play makes me wonder what could have been had even a handful of the recent picks panned out. I suppose the scary thing is that the Patriots still could be the team to come out of the AFC at the end of the season. Their weak remaining schedule is well-documented, and should leave them with a cushy seed in the playoffs. Not everyone has the personnel to stymie the Patriots multi-faceted attack, and not everyone is going to be able to hang the 28 points on them needed to win. Still, another year of Brady’s prime will soon be up, and, barring some type of defensive revelation, the ever-closing window for him and Belichick to win another title continues to be pushed down.
Matt Ryan looks very comfortable running the no-huddle, which has been used more regularly as the season has gone on. Overall, his accuracy has looked a little off this season. He's not known for throwing a great deep ball, but some of his mid- to short-range throws have been head-scratchers. It should be interesting to see how the Falcons utilize their running backs during the second half of the season. Michael Turner continues to break tackles and churn out 100-yard games, but in the back of their minds, the team has to be worried about him wearing down like he did last season. Jacquizz Rodgers is very intriguing. The Falcons mostly use him on pitches to the outside to take advantage of his quickness. Both he and Jason Snelling are good pass-catchers which brings a different dynamic to the offense because Turner is not a threat at all. Julio Jones is obviously going to be a special player, but he doesn't seem to have much idea of what he is doing with the rest of the offense just yet (the lockout and injuries may have something to do with that). Some believe that the Falcons are a better team without Julio in the lineup because they get to go back to focusing on the running attack. It does seem that they force a lot of passes to the rookie, and may be trying to get him the ball to the point that it disrupts their gameplan. Tony Gonzalez looks fresh and has not played like a 35-year-old. After a very rocky start, the offensive line seems to have settled down. Joe Hawley has been very up-and-down, but looks like he has potential. Sam Baker had been awful at the beginning of the season, so his injury was probably more of a blessing. I think, other than nearly shattering Ryan's ankle, Will Svitek has done a good job filling in. It'll be interesting to see who the starter will be once Baker is healthy.
While the offense has the big names and the majority of the fanfare, Atlanta's defense has quietly played very well in my opinion. In their past six games, the Falcons have held opponents to an average of 18 points, and that stretch includes the explosive offenses of Green Bay (ranked No. 1 DVOA through Week 10), New Orleans (No. 3) and Carolina (No. 8). The defensive line does a pretty poor job of getting to the passer, but they do have good athletes along the line. Atlanta sends zone blitzes several times a game, typically bringing a safety (usually James Sanders) and a linebacker and dropping John Abraham back into coverage. I've also seen Ray Edwards, Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters drop into zone. Peters has played really well this year (even taking into account his costly offsides penalty in Tampa). Sean Weatherspoon looks like he is ready to break out: If it seems like he is involved on every play, that's probably because he is. Both he and Curtis Lofton play every down, no matter the situation. They have been very solid against both the run and the pass and it looks like Brian VanGorder is trying to get them to the passer more as the season progresses. Thomas DeCoud, who was benched earlier in the year, continues to struggle. He seems confused at times and has missed a lot of tackles. Having followed VanGorder at the University of Georgia and his four years in Atlanta, he deserves some credit for this defense and not just for his epic, "every month should be Movember" 'stache.
One of the most surprising aspects of this year’s team has been just how effective the running game has been. I am giving most of, if not all of, the credit for their improved running game to the coaching of Howard Mudd. With his arrival, the Eagles have started using the stretch play and trap plays to a greater extent, and with greater results then in years past. Each of these run plays perfectly suit Eagles' leading rusher LeSean McCoy. The stretch play extends the defense horizontally allowing McCoy to pick which holes to rush through or to cut back against the flow of the play and test a defense's backside containment. The trap play is used to attack a run defense vertically, by allowing a defensive lineman to rush into the backfield only to find himself blocked by a pulling tackle or tight end, while the guard or center that pulled extend their blocks to the second level of the defense. On trap plays, once McCoy gets past the defensive lineman who is rushing into the backfield, he has a clear path all the way to the third level of the defense. McCoy has also shown an uncanny ability juke away from defenders and run through arm tackles this season.
Even with all the Raiders injuries, it is interesting how willing they are to throw six defensive backs on the field. Usually this means moving OLB Kameron Wimbley down to end and putting Tyvon Branch at the middle linebacker position next to regular linebacker Rolando McClain. The backup and nickel corners have fared pretty well too. Their effectiveness correlates to the effectiveness of the Raiders pass rush. When they are getting to the quarterback, their defense can play with a lot of teams and their cornerbacks, most of the time, are not liabilities. The decision to play Branch at the middle linebacker position is interesting considering another option they have: former first-round pick Aaron Curry. Curry has proven himself worth every penny of the seventh-round pick they gave up to get him. He could probably fill this role, but I suppose the team probably wants to bring him along slowly.
As far as Carson Palmer, I’ll just gloss over him since he’s been so talked up by analysts lately, but he has been throwing the ball surprisingly well. You could see it even during his first start against Denver: he threw some very pretty balls. He got careless at times, and probably wasn’t sure what his arm could do just yet, but he did show glimpses of what was to come in the next few games.
I’ll get to the Packers more at the end, but one thing that has stood out about their defense is that Desmond Bishop has been exploited by most teams this year. He is a very capable linebacker and is near the league lead in tackles, but teams have been able to effectively isolate him on tight ends and running backs.
Chris Johnson, in all but maybe two games, has been an embarrassment to the running back position. The running back role was already becoming a position where it was much harder to get your payday, and he has done his fellow backs a great disservice with his play this year. Watching Johnson play is like watching a child who’s being forced to hang out with kids that he doesn’t want to play with. He’s given the lowest amount of effort necessary for him to still appear like he’s playing in a football game.
I was given the "pleasure" of charting the Colts one week. I’ll give Curtis Painter credit for having decent athleticism for a quarterback. More importantly, he has an unbelievable throwback haircut. I think that about covers the positives in Indianapolis this year.
Charting has really made me realize how critical a pass rush is to a defensive effort. As a Packers fan (and more importantly) as a part owner of the team, I watch and rewatch every one of their games. I think their weakened defense is due, quite obviously, to their largely-average pass rush. They have not been able to get consistent pressure. Teams have recognized that Clay Matthews is the lone true threat to the quarterback and they have focused all their attention on him and allowed the rest of the defenders to try and beat them. A middle linebacker (Bishop) leads the team in sacks. I’d be very surprised if Green Bay doesn’t make a more concerted effort this offseason to find Matthews a running mate, be it a defensive end or a fellow outside linebacker.
On offense, there is a noticeable difference with a healthy Matthew Stafford in the lineup. When things are going well, he can complete passes that would be very difficult for an average quarterback to hit; when the running game is working too, the offense looks like the fantasy-football-caliber offense we've been led to believe it can be. Even with Jahvid Best out, having a full complement of receivers gives Stafford a lot of choices on most plays, and on the plays where he's got only one or two options, one of them is typically Calvin Johnson, and he can make a difference on just about any throw.
What hasn't changed, though, is offensive line play. The Adjusted Line Yards are up a touch from last year (3.35 to 3.65), but the Adjusted Sack Rate is worse (4.5 percent to 5.7 percent), and that's with Stafford getting rid of the ball more often. Scott Linehan and Todd Downing have put in a lot of work with Stafford on getting rid of the ball quickly: it was especially apparent during the first couple of games, when he would get rid of the ball almost immediately if pressured. From what I've seen, the increase in sack rate stems from weaker play at both tackle positions. Jeff Backus has 170 consecutive starts at left tackle; he's done all that he is able to do at that position, and certainly deserves a great deal of credit for enduring the entire Millen Era, but he's just not capable of holding off the better defensive ends in the league. All too often, Stafford ends up hit before he even knows there's pressure from that side. Gosder Cherilus is much worse on the right side: Detroit's 0.92 ALY around right end is the second-worst figure for any team in any direction (Pittsburgh somehow has -0.59 around left end), and Cherilus is a big factor in that. He's been replaced by Corey Hilliard occasionally over the last season or two, and if the Lions are going to be serious contenders, he'll need to be replaced by someone better on a permanent basis. The other linemen are serviceable, although Dominic Raiola, like Backus, is reaching the end of his career.
Defensively, the line is a solid unit, They run eight or nine deep with Nick Fairley recovered from his injury (although perhaps not completely up to speed on the scheme). This is especially notable at end, where Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young will fill in and not miss a beat while Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril rest for a couple of plays. Teams continue to run up the middle on the Lions despite the fact that yards simply aren't there to be found: Detroit's Power Success and Stuffed rates match well with what you see on the screen. Over and over again, opposing coordinators run dives up the middle and end up with a yard or two at best, despite the fact that the Lions do have a weakness to the right side, which is typically Avril and Ndamukong Suh. This is the side to which teams have been running wham plays, letting the two defensive linemen come in and redirecting them out of the play.
Acquisitions at linebacker have made a big difference: Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant read plays well and generally don't overreact, giving the Lions a front seven to rival most in the league. Their one big weakness is covering tight ends. Detroit's fifth in the league in DVOA against tight ends, but I suspect that's more from the plays when Louis Delmas comes up and covers them ... it could also be that it's guys like Tony Gonzalez who are burning the linebackers.
For the most part, the secondary has been adequate -- in particular, they've been good at catching errant passes forced by pressure. The corners are undersized, though, and teams with taller wideouts have had success isolating them in one-on-one coverage and throwing passes over the smaller defensive backs. I think neither Gunther Cunningham nor Jim Schwartz see this as a strong unit: I'm not sure I can recall more than one or two plays where the Lions went to a dime package this year, which tells me they'd rather risk a linebacker on a slot receiver than send out Brandon McDonald or Anthony Madison for a number of plays.
Jason Hanson seems completely recovered from last year's injury and is once again nailing 50-yard field goals. Detroit was hoping Ryan Donahue would be an upgrade over Nick Harris at punter ... well, he hasn't been, and his coverage team hasn't helped out. We don't chart special-teams plays, but it doesn't take a practiced eye to see the mistakes Detroit has made over and over again on coverage, both during punts and kickoffs, and they've made a difference on a number of occasions.
This is much more like the Lions team that won their last four in 2010 than the team that started 2-10, but they still have some significant issues, and they likely will struggle both to make the playoffs and to win once they get there until they get those issues worked out. Expect Detroit's first-round pick (and perhaps another one) to go toward shoring up the offensive line.
Having charted the 49ers for most of the season, the most interesting thing to me has been seeing the progression of Jim Harbaugh's offensive play calls. Early in the season -- presumably because the lockout gave him little time to implement a full offense -- the team mostly ran conservative, two-tight end sets. It was clear that their focus was on risk reduction and ball control, which worked because their defense played really well and they scored enough to win some close games. However, in the past few weeks Harbaugh seems to have become much more comfortable with opening up the playbook. They are running many more three-wide receiver sets, putting more men in motion, and even splitting out Kendall Hunter as a receiver sometimes. For a team that already has a fantastic defense, implementing a more dynamic offense could really help them come playoff time.
As for their defense, the biggest thing I've noticed is that they get consistent pressure on the quarterback -- often from only rushing four men. There seem to be a lot of throws that are hurried, which has led to a lot of stalled drives. Also, Navorro Bowman has been a great pick; Patrick Willis rightfully gets a lot of credit, but Bowman has made a lot of big plays for them and has really helped solidify their linebacking corps this season.
84 comments, Last at 28 Nov 2011, 8:08pm by Jon Sullivan