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» Catch Radius: Best of the NFC

Part I of our catch radius season finale spotlights the NFC kings of double coverage (Calvin Johnson), the sideline (Jordy Nelson), the drag route (DeSean Jackson) and the red zone (Dez Bryant).

18 Aug 2003

In Focus: AFC West

by Aaron Schatz

This is the third of a series of eight articles taking a closer look at every team in the NFL, division by division, using our new statistics such as line yards and DVOA (explained here).  Don't be scared away by all the numbers -- the goal of these IN FOCUS articles is to go through all the numbers and translate the most interesting trends into actual English paragraphs for those allergic to endless tables of stats.  You enjoy the stats separated by team, or just enjoy the insights of each team's commentary.

The format of these articles is explained at the beginning of the one on the AFC East.  Remember, offensive numbers are better the more POSITIVE, defensive numbers are better the more NEGATIVE.  Overall total is offense minus defense, so the more positive the better.  Schedule strength is harder the more negative, with the hardest schedule ranked #1 and the easiest ranked #32.  New players on a team are colored blue and players who have left the team are colored red.

Previous articles:

Launch: AFC East (also explains format of IN FOCUS articles)

8/7/03: NFC East

Remember when I said that the AFC East is the most balanced division in sports?  The AFC West is about the same, with three teams packed near the top of the total efficiency standings and a fourth a few spots back.  Real bummer for you Chargers fans.

TEAM
W-L
Total
Rank
Offense DVOA
Rank
Defense OVOA
Rank
Schedule Strength
Rank
OAK
11-5 30.0% 2 21.1% 2 -8.9% 6 -3.1% 3
KAN
8-8 18.9% 4 23.6% 1 4.7% 23 -3.2% 2
DEN
9-7 15.9% 5 11.4% 5 -4.4% 13 -3.4% 1
SDG
8-8 1.4% 16 -3.9% 22 -5.3% 10 -2.5% 5

SHARED OPPONENTS

OUT: NFC West, AFC East

IN: NFC North, AFC North

HELPS: Passing defense in specific, all defense in general.  Last year, the four hardest defensive schedules in football belonged to the four AFC West teams (New England was #5, in case you are curious).  This year, it gets much easier.  Because of the poor teams in the North divisions, the four AFC West teams start the year with a significant advantage in the wild card race.

HURTS: Running offense, though these will still be four of the best running games in the league. 

DENVER BRONCOS

 
Pass
Rank
Rush
Rank
Total
Rank
OFFENSE DVOA 9.2% 11 14.0% 4 11.4% 5
DEFENSE OVOA -1.8% 14 -8.1% 5 -4.4% 13


 

PASSING
PLAYER
DVOA
Rank
Passes
Yards
VOA
Rank
DV+
Rank
QB
Plummer, Jake (ARI 02) -22.0% 42 564 3027 -19.1% 36 -10.1 47
QB
Griese, Brian (MIA 03) 7.0% 15 468 3043 11.6% 11 28.9 14
QB
Beuerlein, Steve -13.5% 33 128 934 -1.9% 24 -13.3 29
RUSHING
PLAYER
DVOA
Rank
Runs
Yards
VOA
Rank
DV+
Rank
QB
Plummer, Jake (ARI 02) -8.5% 21 35 286 -10.8% 25 -4.4 25
QB
Griese, Brian (MIA 03) -5.3% 17 25 117 -0.8% 17 -2.0 19
QB
Beuerlein, Steve -41.6% 4 9 -38.2% -2.9
RB
Portis, Clinton 17.0% 6 273 1508 29.1% 5 46.9 2
RB
Anderson, Mike 5.3% 18 84 386 10.0% 10 4.5 22
RB
Gary, Olandis (BUF 03) -3.5% 37 147 -4.1% -1.0
WR
Smith, Rod -68.1% 6 9 -62.7% -4.9
WR
Lelie, Ashley 54.4% 4 40 74.2% 2.8
RECEIVING
PLAYER
DVOA
Rank
Passes
Yards
VOA
Rank
DV+
Rank
WR
Smith, Rod -3.3% 57 147 1132 -3.2% 58 -6.2 66
WR
McCaffrey, Ed 8.4% 28 103 908 12.7% 18 12.2 26
WR
Lelie, Ashley 34.0% 5 53 525 40.0% 3 23.2 12
TE
Sharpe, Shannon 7.0% 15 88 702 15.0% 9 8.6 9
TE
Carswell, Dwayne 3.7% 19 29 189 6.8% 14 1.4 17
TE
Hape, Patrick -47.8% 14 65 -44.6% -9.4
RB
Portis, Clinton 18.7% 12 48 462 29.3% 9 10.0 12
RB
Anderson, Mike 17.8% 25 171 26.8% 5.1
RB
Gary, Olandis (BUF 03) 66.0% 21 148 51.7% 10.8
Line Yards
Adjusted
Rank
Not Adjusted
Rank
10+ Yards
Rank
Power
Rank
Offense
4.25
1
4.21
1
18%
11
68%
16
Defense
3.32
5
3.17
7
20%
21
68%
13
LEFT
MIDDLE
RIGHT
Line Yards
Carries
Line Yards
Rank
Carries
Line Yards
Rank
Carries
Line Yards
Rank
Offense
24%
5.16
1
51%
3.97
4
26%
3.98
10
Defense
29%
3.31
3
51%
3.32
6
20%
3.33
9

Other important additions: S Lee Flowers (PIT), DT Daryl Gardner (WAS), OT George Foster (R1), LB Terry Pierce (R2), 

Other important losses: DT Chester McGlockton (NYJ), DE Keith Washington (NYG), CB Tyrone Poole (NWE), LB Kavika Pittman (FA) 

THE LEAGUE'S MOST UNDERRATED OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

Denver clearly had one of the best running games in the league in 2002, and a well-rounded one as well.  They're known for having a great offensive line and great run-blocking wide receivers.  That being said, what stands out here is that 5.16 aly/carry (adjusted line yards per carry) from the left side -- that's the adjusted number, despite a penalty for the poor run defenses Denver faced in 2002.  Neither LT Ephraim Salaam nor LG Ben Hamilton (who also played some center) made the Pro Bowl, and neither is really lauded as being any better than the rest of Denver's line.

The Denver running game, going left, was better than any other direction from any other team in the NFL by a large margin.  Kansas City left was second, 4.72 aly/carry, and Washington right was third, 4.69 aly/carry.

Are Salaam and Hamilton really that good?  Well, it's generally accepted that Clinton Portis is the best of the three Denver running backs at going to the side, and he did get by far the most carries in 2002.  What happens if we break the adjusted line yard numbers down for all three backs?

Adj. Line Yards Left Middle Right
Portis 5.35 4.02 4.10
Gary 4.74 3.38 2.89
Anderson 4.64 4.17 3.80

Well, either every single Denver running back is exceptional at going to one side but not the other, or Salaam and Hamilton are the most underrated offensive linemen in the NFL.  I'm guessing the latter.

OTHER NOTES

Despite his great performance overall, Clinton Portis was below average on third downs.  Mike Anderson also had this problem, though to a smaller extent:

DVOA 1st Down 2nd Down 3rd Down
Clinton Portis +19% +26% -37%
Mike Anderson +17% -4% -22%

Both Brian Griese and Steve Beuerlein had much more success throwing to the right side than the left.  This trend showed with nearly every receiver, with Ed McCaffrey as the exception.  New Denver QB Jake Plummer, on the other hand, was far superior throwing over the middle compared to the sides.  This will be another interesting trend to watch in 2003; is this more a product of the team, or the quarterback?

DVOA* Left Middle Right
Brian Griese +22% -4% +51%
Steve Beuerlein -23% -6% +61%
Jake Plummer -13% +37% -21%

Oddly enough, although Denver runs were evenly split between left and right, passes to running backs were thrown to the left much more often than the right.

Denver played the hardest defensive schedule in the league.

Denver's rush defense tightens up when they are losing by more than a touchdown: 

Winning by 8 points or more     +29% VOA

Winning or losing by less than 8     -4% VOA

Losing by 8 points or more     -61% VOA 

If you want to succeed passing the ball against Denver, pass on first down and stay away from the sidelines.  The Denver pass defense allowed a +19% VOA on first down, but 0% VOA, or league average, on downs two through four.

Denver's passing defense also was miserable on passes in the middle of the field, with a +78% VOA, compared to a +19% VOA on passes to the left or right.* 

*(Due to negative pass plays like sacks and batted passes that don't have a direction, passing ratings by direction tend more positive.)

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Pass
Rank
Rush
Rank
Total
Rank
OFFENSE DVOA 23.5% 4 23.7% 2 23.6% 1
DEFENSE OVOA 9.3% 25 -1.1% 15 4.7% 23
PASSING
PLAYER
DVOA
Rank
Passes
Yards
VOA
Rank
DV+
Rank
QB
Green, Trent 18.9% 5 495 3632 23.1% 5 80.5 5
RUSHING
PLAYER
DVOA
Rank
Runs
Yards
VOA
Rank
DV+
Rank
QB
Green, Trent 50.2% 1 27 228 56.2% 1 16.9 4
RB
Holmes, Priest 21.5% 5 313 1618 30.2% 4 65.7 1
RB
Cloud, Mike (NWE 03) -22.3% 49 115 -15.4% -11.5
RB
Richardson, Tony 5.3% 22 82 12.1% 1.1
RB
Blaylock, Derrick -10.5% 16 72 9.7% -1.4
WR
Hall, Dante -13.7% 11 54 -10.4% -2.1
WR
Morton, Johnnie 68.4% 10 124 85.1% 8.8
WR
Kennison, Eddie 6.8% 7 58 11.0% 0.6
RECEIVING
PLAYER
DVOA
Rank
Passes
Yards
VOA
Rank
DV+
Rank
WR
Kennison, Eddie 27.9% 8 92 960 30.0% 6 34.5 7
WR
Boerigter, Marc 18.9% 38 424 24.5% 10.0
WR
Morton, Johnnie -4.1% 62 64 397 -4.4% 60 -3.4 56
WR
Hall, Dante -1.0% 35 322 -0.7% -0.5
TE
Gonzalez, Tony 11.6% 12 99 797 14.8% 10 14.9 4
RB
Holmes, Priest 44.9% 5 81 672 48.3% 4 36.3 2
RB
Richardson, Tony 11.0% 23 125 11.8% 2.6
RB
Blaylock, Derrick -31.0% 10 47 -22.4% -4.1
RB
Cloud, Mike (NWE 03) -1.6% 9 48 -2.7% -0.1


 

Other important additions: RB Larry Johnson (R1), WLB Shawn Barber (PHI), CB Dexter McCleon (STL), DE Vonnie Holliday (GNB)

Other important losses: LB Marvcus Patton (RETIRED), DE Duane Clemons (FA)

CLERICAL ERROR

I can throw numbers at you until the cows come home, and when it comes to the Kansas City Chiefs, they won't matter that much.  The biggest question mark for the 2003 NFL season -- and the issue that will make or break the Kansas City playoff hopes -- is Priest Holmes' hip.

Priest Holmes was the #1 player in football last year, both by acclamation and by our statistics.  Between rushing and receiving, he was 102 "success points" over an average back (DV+).  The other Kansas City backs, combined, were 13.4 "success points" worse than an average back.  And while Larry Johnson could be a capable backup, the track record of Penn State running backs isn't very good.  Blair Thomas?  Curtis Enis?  Ki-Jana Carter? 

Assuming Holmes is healthy, there are some interesting details from his amazing 2002 season.  Surprisingly, Holmes was thrown only five red zone passes.  That's a lot fewer than most top backs.  He still had plenty of red zone touches, since his 65 carries in the red zone ranked fourth in the league behind Ricky Williams, Eddie George, and Travis Henry.

The Chiefs had two offensive linemen make the Pro Bowl, LT Willie Roaf and RG Wil Shields.  Looking at the line yard numbers, you can see part of the reason Roaf is so well-regarded, but it makes you wonder about Shields and RT John Tait.  Here are the adjusted line yards for Holmes and the other KC backs:

Adj. Line Yards Left Middle Right
Priest Holmes 4.68 4.36 3.66
Other KC backs  5.04 3.42 1.82

NUMBER FOUR?

Yes, DVOA really says that the Chiefs, despite going 8-8, were the fourth best team in the league last year.  How the heck did they manage to miss the playoffs?  Three possible issues:

  • As we noted in our article on the Pythagorean theorem, the Chiefs should have gone 9-7 with the points they scored and allowed.
  • The Chiefs played the second-hardest schedule in the league.
  • Unfortunately, our numbers do not yet include special teams.  But based on NFL stats, it doesn't seem like the Chiefs were particularly hurting in this area.  They were one of the league's worst teams in net punting average, but they were middle of the pack on kickoffs, kickoff returns, and punt returns.

OTHER NOTES

The Chiefs had one of the most balanced passing attacks in the game.  They passed left as often as they passed right and their DVOA rating was about the same left, right, and over the middle.  They were one of the more set teams when it came to wide receiver formation, with Kennison usually on the left and Morton usually on the right.

33% of Kansas City's red zone passes went to Tony Gonzalez.  Only three receivers were more commonly used by their teams as red zone targets: Moss, Moulds, and Ward.

Trent Green was much more efficient when the Chiefs were losing, with a +69% DVOA when down by more than a touchdown but +11% DVOA when winning by any amount or losing by only 7 or less.

Shocked by Green's rank as the #1 QB runner based on DVOA?  We don't think of Green as mobile, but the guy can scramble when he has to, especially in long yardage situations.  Green ran 19 times with 8 or more yards to go for a total of 186 yards -- almost 10 yards per carry! 

Kansas City's pass defense was not strong in general, but they toughened up when it counted -- in the red zone, on third down, and in the fourth quarter.

VOA against Chiefs passing defense:

1st Down +16% VOA

2nd Down +34% VOA

3rd Down -1% VOA 

Red Zone -33% VOA

Rest of Field +24% VOA 

Q1 to Q3 +26% VOA

Q4  -9% VOA 

The Chiefs' defensive improvements in the fourth quarter came primarily in games where they were losing or winning by a touchdown or more.  In close games, the fourth quarter pass defense played closer to the Chiefs' normal level. 

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Pass
Rank
Rush
Rank
Total
Rank
OFFENSE DVOA 28.4% 2 10.5% 6 21.1% 2
DEFENSE OVOA -8.7% 9 -9.1% 4 -8.9% 6


 

PASSING
PLAYER
DVOA
Rank
Passes
Yards
VOA
Rank
DV+
Rank
QB
Gannon, Rich 20.9% 3 650 4541 24.9% 3 127.6 2
RUSHING
PLAYER
DVOA
Rank
Runs
Yards
VOA
Rank
DV+
Rank
QB
Gannon, Rich -6.0% 19 31 171 -3.7% 18 -2.4 20
RB
Garner, Charlie 27.4% 2 182 962 31.8% 2 46.0 3
RB
Wheatley, Tyrone 11.0% 9 108 419 7.8% 15 10.4 15
RB
Crockett, Zack 37.8% 40 118 43.5% 16.8
RB
Kirby, Terry -25.2% 16 51 -37.8% -2.8
WR
Brown, Tim -54.5% 6 19 -46.6% -5.3
WR
Porter, Jerry -75.9% 4 6 -75.9% -4.1
WR
Rice, Jerry -16.3% 3 20 -12.8% -0.9
RECEIVING
PLAYER
DVOA
Rank
Passes
Yards
VOA
Rank
DV+
Rank
WR
Rice, Jerry 7.1% 33 150 1317 8.9% 27 14.6 24
WR
Brown, Tim 7.3% 32 127 930 9.4% 26 12.8 25
WR
Porter, Jerry 37.7% 2 70 740 41.4% 2 36.0 6
TE
Williams, Roland -18.0% 38 40 213 -14.1% 36 -10.8 42
TE
Jolley, Doug 39.4% 1 37 409 52.1% 1 21.5 2
RB
Garner, Charlie 44.4% 6 111 954 53.3% 2 52.4 1
RB
Kirby, Terry -36.8% 22 145 -36.8% -5.0
RB
Martin, Cecil (PHI 02) -57.9% 22 126 -57.9% -14.8
RB
Ritchie, Jon (PHI 03) -32.1% 21 66 -33.9% -5.2
RB
Wheatley, Tyrone -37.5% 20 71 -37.5% -6.8

Other important additions: DT Dana Stubblefield (SFO), CB Anthony Parker (SFO), DE Tyler Brayton (R1), WR Teyo Johnson (R2)

Other important losses: DT Sam Adams (BUF), DE Regan Upshaw (WAS), CB Tory James (CIN)

OLD MEN AND THE MIDDLE

You wouldn't expect the older, veteran receivers on the Raiders to go threatening their safety over the middle much, would you? Believe it or not, the Raiders were much better on passes up the middle than on passes to the sidelines. Here are the numbers for the four main receivers on the team

 

Left Middle Right
Player DVOA Passes DVOA Passes DVOA Passes
J. Rice -1.8% 57 27.7% 53 -8.7% 39
T. Brown 3.9% 41 21.9% 30 -0.4% 53
J. Porter -4.5% 17 50.8% 24 56.2% 27
C. Garner 44.3% 50 56.8% 23 33.6% 34

Oddly enough, the receivers who don't have an advantage over the middle are the ones you would expect to be going there all the time -- the tight ends, Jolley and Williams.

OTHER NOTES

Charlie Garner is the shifty one and Tyrone Wheatley is the straight-ahead guy, right?  Then why is Garner better running up the middle, and Wheatley better to the sides?

Adj. Line Yards Left Middle Right
Garner 3.88 4.39 3.94
Wheatley 4.13 3.34 3.84

Jerry Porter had the best rating of any player in football thrown at least 20 passes between the opponent's 40 and the end zone (+78% DVOA).

Oakland was much better defending the run to the right, usually the strong side, and not quite as good up the middle.  The power of Bill Romanowski?  The reason Oakland will miss Sam Adams?  Part of the reason Dana Stubblefield was brought in?  Probably all three.  Here is VOA against the Oakland rush defense: 

Left: -3% VOA

Middle: +3% VOA

Right: -24% VOA 

Based on last year's statistics, the best strategy against the Oakland defense would seem to be passing on first down, running on second down, and then passing again on third down.  Check out the VOA against the Oakland defense -- remember, negative numbers mean less scoring and thus better defense.

VOA vs. OAK D 1st Down 2nd Down 3rd Down
Passing +4% +4% +21%
Rushing -14% +17% -22%

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Pass
Rank
Rush
Rank
Total
Rank
OFFENSE DVOA -9.2% 23 1.6% 13 -3.9% 22
DEFENSE OVOA -6.1% 11 -4.0% 8 -5.3% 10


 

PASSING
PLAYER
DVOA
Rank
Passes
Yards
VOA
Rank
DV+
Rank
QB
Brees, Drew -6.6% 28 548 3312 2.5% 21 -30.0 36
QB
Flutie, Doug 13.7% 10 64 16.0% 1.1
RUSHING
PLAYER
DVOA
Rank
Runs
Yards
VOA
Rank
DV+
Rank
QB
Brees, Drew -15.3% 26 28 142 -6.4% 21 -4.8 27
RB
Tomlinson, LaDainian 2.5% 21 372 1683 9.9% 11 9.0 16
RB
Fletcher, Terrell 37.5% 26 128 56.0% 8.0
RB
Neal, Lorenzo (CIN 02) 10.2% 9 31 3.0% 0.9
WR
Dwight, Tim 31.2% 12 107 41.8% 4.4
WR
Conway, Curtis (NYJ 03) 50.0% 7 53 71.9% 4.3
RECEIVING
PLAYER
DVOA
Rank
Passes
Yards
VOA
Rank
DV+
Rank
WR
Conway, Curtis (NYJ 03) -2.7% 55 94 955 1.5% 47 -3.5 57
WR
Dwight, Tim -3.8% 58 93 691 0.0% 51 -4.7 61
WR
Boston, David (ARI 02) -2.4% 54 75 572 -5.9% 62 -2.3 54
WR
Caldwell, Reche -35.5% 95 43 225 -34.5% 95 -19.5 90
WR
Parker, Eric 25.0% 263 30 263 31.2% 9.9
TE
Alexander, Stephen -2.4% 25 76 532 -2.8% 24 -2.2 29
TE
Norman, Josh 21.7% 4 25 201 20.7% 5 7.1 13
TE
Peelle, Justin -74.6% 7 15 -75.1% -6.5
RB
Tomlinson, LaDainian -20.0% 43 101 489 -15.0% 42 -20.8 49
RB
McCrary, Fred (NWE 03) -57.9% 49 31 96 -57.0% 49 -17.6 48
RB
Neal, Lorenzo (CIN 02) 4.2% 29 133 1.3% 1.3
RB
Fletcher, Terrell -35.5% 17 62 -33.7% -6.5


 

Line Yards
Adjusted
Rank
Not Adjusted
Rank
10+ Yards
Rank
Power
Rank
Offense
3.63
17
3.50
14
22%
5
63%
24
Defense
3.44
11
3.43
18
17%
13
80%
28


 

LEFT
MIDDLE
RIGHT
Line Yards
Carries
Line Yards
Rank
Carries
Line Yards
Rank
Carries
Line Yards
Rank
Offense
29%
3.24
28
46%
3.65
13
25%
4.05
9
Defense
23%
3.49
7
49%
3.27
5
28%
3.69
17

 Other important additions: RG Solomon Page (DAL), S Kwamie Lassiter (ARI), CB Sammy Davis (R1) 

Other important losses: WLB Junior Seau (MIA), S Rodney Harrison (NWE), CB/S Ryan McNeil (FA), MLB Orlando Ruff (NOR) 

ALLERGIC TO THE MIDDLE

San Diego's offense was the opposite of their rivals up north.  San Diego threw only 14% of passes over the middle, the lowest percentage of all 32 teams.  They ran only 46% of running plays over the middle, which ranks 28th out of all 32 teams.

Then again, this makes you wonder.  Did San Diego not run plays up the middle?  Or perhaps, could this be a product of whoever does play by play for games in San Diego?  After all, the question of whether a play is "left" or "middle" can be arbitrary if it is somewhere in between.  Chalk that up as another issue for further study.

So, San Diego ran most of its plays to the sides -- and depending on the player, they were definitely better going one way or the other.

You'll notice above, on the line yards chart, that the San Diego line was much better blocking on the right-hand side.  That right-side advantage is also easy to discern in the DVOA numbers, and it is equally strong for Tomlinson in both rushing and receiving:

DVOA Left Middle Right
Tomlinson runs -10% +3% +19%
Tomlinson passes -79% +55% +1%

San Diego's coaches apparently realized that Tomlinson wasn't having much luck on left-side passes, since they threw to him on the right far more often.  San Diego was the only team in the league to have a running back lead the team in passes.

Now here's the quirk: that right-side advantage for Tomlinson is completely switched when it comes to the rest of Brees' receivers.  The only three quarterbacks with a more pronounced left-side advantage were Peete, Maddox, and Harrington.  Here are the DVOA numbers for Brees passing and for the top four San Diego receivers:

Receiving DVOA Left Middle Right
D. Brees total +24% +21% -23%
L. Tomlinson -79% +55% +1%
C. Conway +12% -18% -15%
T. Dwight +17% +25% -45%
S. Alexander +3% -13% -3%

OTHER NOTES

The closer Drew Brees gets to the end zone, the worse his performance:

DEEP (Own 0-20) +14% DVOA
BACK (Own 20-40) +6% DVOA
MID (40-40) +1% DVOA
FRONT (Opp. 40-20) -23% DVOA
RED (Opp. 20-0) -49% DVOA

He wasn't here last year, but I have to comment on the really strange usage of David Boston by the Arizona coaches.  The best receiver on the Cardinals had two -- count 'em, TWO -- passes thrown to him in the end zone.  Yes, I know he missed half the season, but still, two passes?  Either he had three guys hanging on him every time the Cards got past the 20, or they have no idea what plays to run out in Phoenix.

The San Diego defense was great against the run but lousy against the pass when winning, and the exact opposite when losing:

 

VOA vs. Pass VOA vs. Rush
San Diego up by 8 or more +32% -10%
Game within 8 points +8% +1%
San Diego losing by 8 or more –16% +24%

Remember, these numbers are based on a comparison with similar situations, so the fact that teams that are losing tend to pass while teams that are winning tend to run is taken into account.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 18 Aug 2003

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