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?
18 Jan 2005
By Michael David Smith
Phil Simms, owner of the NFL postseason record for completion percentage in a game, says he doesn't deserve the credit for that record. Simms wrote in his recent book, Sunday Morning Quarterback, that he completed 22 of 25 passes in Super Bowl XXI not because he threw the ball well, but because his line gave him all day to find open receivers.
Simms' point was illustrated beautifully in the Eagles' 27-14 victory over the Vikings Sunday. Donovan McNabb, whose line gave him great protection, completed 21 of 33 passes for 286 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Daunte Culpepper, whose teammates couldn't block the Eagles' relentless blitzing, completed 24 of 46 passes for 316 yards and one touchdown, with two interceptions.
Perhaps the biggest question regarding Sunday's NFC Championship Game is whether the Eagles can have the same success protecting McNabb from the Atlanta Falcons' front four, which is among the best in the league at rushing the passer, as they did against the Vikings' front four.
We don't have any official statistics for how well a quarterback is protected, but I used a stopwatch and a tape of both the Eagles' and the Falcons' wins last weekend to determine how much time the Eagles' offensive line gave McNabb, and how quickly the Falcons' defensive line got to Rams quarterback Marc Bulger.
The general rule of thumb is that the defense should be able to get to the quarterback within three seconds of the ball being snapped. On Sunday, McNabb had more than three seconds to throw 16 times. His offensive line simply dominated the Vikings' front four, and on the rare occasions that the Minnesota rush got to McNabb, he used his mobility to get away. (What separates McNabb from Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is that McNabb uses the threat of running to help him pass effectively. Vick is the best running quarterback in NFL history, but his passes are nowhere near as effective.)
Early in Saturday's Rams-Falcons game, it appeared that the Rams' offensive line would be able to hold off the Falcons' pass rush. Bulger got more than three seconds to throw on seven of his first nine passes. But after Bulger had 3.4 seconds to throw on his 28-yard touchdown pass to Tory Holt, the Falcons' defense seemed to have the Rams' offensive line figured out. Bulger threw 26 more passes in that game but had more than three seconds to throw only three more times -- and one of those three passes was an interception, while on another Bulger backpedaled 12 yards and finally dumped the ball off to Steven Jackson for a loss.
So which matchup in the trenches will we see Sunday? The Eagles' dominating performance against the Vikings' rush, or the Falcons' dismantling of the Rams' protection schemes?
The most important battle will be the Eagles' huge left tackle, Tra Thomas, against Falcons right defensive end Brady Smith. The 6-foot-7, 349-pound Thomas wouldn't budge against the Vikings, making several Minnesota linemen -- particularly Lance Johnstone, who had 11 sacks this season -- look like boys playing against a grown man. But Orlando Pace, the Rams' huge left tackle, didn't fare well against Smith. Smith sacked Bulger in the end zone for a safety, running right past Pace, although Pace might point out that Smith had such a quick first step that he might have been offsides on the play. Pace also was called for a false start when anticipating a Smith rush, and when the Falcons took on the Rams in the regular season, Pace gave up a sack in the end zone that resulted in a fumble recovery for a touchdown by Smith. Smith is something of a poor man's Dwight Freeney -- fast enough to get pressure on all-out pass rushes, but weak against the run. Freeney tends to excel when he uses his speed advantage over big left tackles. If Smith can do the same to Thomas, the Eagles could be in trouble.
The middle of the line might be the Falcons' best chance at causing pressure on McNabb. Although center Hank Fraley is one of the best in the business, and guards Artis Hicks and Jermaine Mayberry have had good years, the Falcons have a rotation of defensive tackles that is second to none at causing pressure. Chad Lavalais, the Falcons' rookie defensive tackle from LSU, continues to impress, getting good pressure from the inside against the Rams. And defensive tackle Ed Jasper only had two sacks this year, but he deserves the credit for the Falcons' first sack of Bulger -- he forced Bulger to run into Travis Hall by disrupting the Rams' pocket. Smith leveled Bulger just as he threw the ball away on another play caused by Jasper's pressure.
But the best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the league is the Falcons' Rod Coleman. Coleman registered a sack against the Rams, and that one was all his own doing; his very quick first step makes it tough for the Falcons' opponents to match up with him. Coleman missed three games because of injuries suffered in a car accident, but he still finished second in the NFL among defensive tackles in sacks this season with 11.5. The best news for the Eagles, though, is that the defensive tackle who had more sacks than Coleman this year was the Vikings' Kevin Williams, and the Eagles' interior three kept him in check on Sunday.
Last week we criticized Mike Martz's blocking schemes, and someone asked why. Two plays late in the game illustrate the problems well. On one, the Falcons rushed four against the Rams' five offensive linemen. That means the Rams can double one player. The Falcons defender the Rams chose to double-team was Antwan Lake, who is certainly not their most dangerous pass rusher. On another play, the Falcons rushed six, and the Rams didn't have any receivers running short routes that Bulger could throw to before the rush came. On that play Keith Brooking forced Bulger to fumble.
You can be sure the Falcons will try to blitz Brooking again because on one of the few plays when the Vikings got pressure on McNabb, it was because Hicks missed a blitzing linebacker, the Vikings' Keith Newman, forcing McNabb to throw the ball away after only 1.7 seconds.
That leaves Patrick Kerney, the Falcons' left defensive end, against Jon Runyan, the Eagles' right offensive tackle. Runyan made one of the plays of the year Sunday when he pancaked two Vikings, Kenny Mixon and Steve Martin, on one McNabb rollout. Kerney finished fourth in the league in sacks this season but had a quiet day against the Rams. If he wins his battle with Runyan Sunday, the Falcons could pull the upset.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.