"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
14 Feb 2012
by Danny Tuccitto
The Ravens special teams ranked 30th this season, but they are only one year removed from their No. 4 ranking in 2010. Given how Baltimore's season ended, it's tempting to scapegoat kicker Billy Cundiff, but there was plenty of blame to go around. Indeed, although the Ravens did rank 23rd in placekicking, scoring 5.0 fewer points than expected, they also ranked 28th in kickoff value (-7.4 net expected points added), 27th in punt value (-7.7), and 29th on kick returns (-5.9).
The Ravens' poor kick return ranking can be pinned on the back of David Reed, who lost two fumbles in a Week 10 loss to the Seahawks. After that debacle, John Harbaugh -- a former special teams coordinator -- replaced Reed with backup safety Tom Zbikowski, and Baltimore kick returns actually ended up gaining 0.6 points above expectation over their final seven games. So let's instead focus on the coverage units.
At 69.4 yards, Cundiff had the second-longest average kickoff distance in the NFL this season, and ranked sixth in touchback percentage (59.5 percent). Similarly, punter Sam Koch ranked tenth in average punt distance (46.5 yards). Therefore, it stands to reason that Baltimore's low rankings owed more to their inability to corral returners than to lack of execution (or leg strength) from their kickers.
Harbaugh attributed this to the steep learning curve of young special teams players, and the stats seem to support his view. As the table shows, Baltimore's coverage units gradually improved as the season progressed.
|Net Expected Points Added, Ravens Special Teams|
|Special Teams Unit||Weeks 1-8||Weeks 9-16||Weeks 17-20|
If this positive trend is to continue into next season, then the Ravens will have to forestall a potential exodus among their best coverage men. On March 13th, four of their top five tacklers on special teams are set to become unrestricted free agents: Zbikowski, backup safety Haruki Nakamura, backup linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, and starting linebacker Jameel McClain. Zbikowski and Ayanbadejo, in particular, should be top priorities -- the latter because he's a two-time special teams All-Pro, and the former because of his additional roles as kick returner and backup to aging, injury-prone free safety Ed Reed, who this year started all 16 games for the first time since 2008.
Another roster hole that might be blown wide open because of free agency is on Baltimore's interior offensive line. Overall, the offensive line finished sixth in adjusted line yards (ALY), and were just about average in both short-yardage running success (15th) and Adjusted Line Yards on runs up the middle (13th). Right guard Marshal Yanda made the Pro Bowl this season, and signed a five-year contract last July, so no issue there. However, left guard Ben Grubbs, center Matt Birk, and center-guard Andre Gurode are free agents, and the 35-year-old Birk is seriously contemplating retirement.
With a pass offense predicated on play action, it's imperative that the Ravens retain or adequately replace the talent they have on their interior offensive line. However, if Baltimore -- as expected -- commits $8 million to Ray Rice via the franchise tag, it may be financially infeasible to do so.
Back in August, when our last series of Plugging the Holes columns ran, the question for Cincinnati was whether their run offense, which returned the same basic personnel that produced a No. 29 ranking according to DVOA in 2010, would ameliorate or exacerbate the negative effect that a rookie starting quarterback typically has on team wins.
With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the Andy-Dalton-led Bengals made the playoffs despitethe team once again ranking near the bottom of the league in run offense DVOA (26th). Fellow rookie A.J. Green, our 10th-most valuable wide receiver according to our DYAR metrics, and improvement on defense were able to offset the lack of an efficient running game.
Despite Cincinnati's winning season in 2011, Dalton is by no means a finished product. For that matter, neither is the implementation of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's offense. For both to achieve full potential, the Bengals are going to have to at least run the ball with some semblance of success.
The issue going forward -- and perhaps this may come as a blessing -- is that running back Cedric Benson, and all three guards who started a game this season (Nate Livings, Bobbie Williams, and Mike McGlynn) are unrestricted free agents. After finishing 42nd in DYAR and 39th in DVOA a year ago, Benson finished 45th in both this season, so the Bengals should feel comfortable letting him walk. Starter-in-waiting Bernard Scott fared just as poorly in limited action. Furthermore, according to Football Outsiders' game charting project, Livings and McGlynn combined to blow seven run blocks that directly resulted in negative yardage. Asides from maybe re-signing Williams, who ended 2011 on injured reserve after not blowing a single run block in 10 starts, this offseason might be the perfect time for Cincinnati to push the reset button on their run game personnel.
Speaking of teams that need to find a competent running back, the Browns of 2010 and 2011 have been a perfect example of how backs can make the offensive line look bad. In addition to ALY, we also keep track of second-level yards (SLY) and open-field yards (OFY), which measure yards gained by running backs once they've ventured beyond the purview of their offensive linemen. If ALY tells you how well an offensive line is run blocking, SLY and OFY tell you how well backs have been able to turn competent blocks into big gains.
The past two seasons, Cleveland's overall ALY ranked 17th (2010) and 23rd (2011). In contrast, the Browns ranked 30th (2010) and 32nd (2011) in SLY, while also ranking 24th (2010) and 31st (2011) in OFY. This means that, although their offensive line can best be described as "mediocre," their backs can best be described as "pedestrian," which isn't ideal when you have the word "running" in your job title. The SLY and OFY figures were slightly better in 2010 when Peyton Hillis was healthy, happy, and having a breakout year. But the differences are slight, and the Hillis ship will almost certainly be sailing out of Lake Erie this offseason.
If and when that happens, it will leave Montario Hardesty and Chris Ogbonnaya in the Browns backfield, along with a player to be named later. Although we prefer not to rank running backs with fewer than 100 carries, Ogbonnaya was clearly the more valuable of the two in their limited opportunities. Whereas Hardesty was the third-worst non-qualifying back according to DYAR, Ogbonnaya was 15th-best. More importantly, though, he was the only one of Cleveland's three main backs that ended the season with positive value over a sample size of 70-plus carries.
Couple this with Hardesty's injury history, and Ogbonnaya could have the inside track for the starting job in 2012 unless "player to be named later" ends up being a clearly better choice. Cleveland should be trying to come up with the name of that player either in the draft or free agency this offseason.
After not finishing outside the top nine in eight consecutive seasons, the Steelers run defense ranked 15th in DVOA this season. Much of that dropoff can be attributed to a rash of injuries in their defensive front seven, but it should be noted that they were a below-average unit over the course of their final three games, even though all their mainstays but LaMarr Woodley had returned to action.
Nose tackle Casey Hampton will be 35 once Week 1 of next season rolls around. Coming off the third ACL injury of his career, there's a distinct possibility that Pittsburgh will release him this offseason. Hampton's backup in 2011, 36-year-old Chris Hoke, decided to retire. Left defensive end Aaron Smith will be 36 by Week 1, finished 2010 on injured reserve, and is an unrestricted free agent who's more likely to retire than return to the Steelers. Finally, right defensive end Brett Keisel will be 34, and severely injured his groin in Pittsburgh's playoff loss to Denver.
By our count, that leaves Ziggy Hood (25 years old), Cameron Heyward (23), and exclusive-rights free agent Steve McLendon (26) as the only young, reasonably healthy players in Pittsburgh's defensive line rotation. Early indications suggest that Hood will slide over to nose tackle in place of Hampton, Heyward will start in Hood's old spot on the strong side, Keisel will return at right defensive end, and McClendon will be the primary backup at end.
That's a lot of turnover in one offseason, and the lack of depth exposes Pittsburgh's run defense to a catastrophe if any of those four get injured. With a 14th-ranked defensive ALY, and a 22nd-ranked defensive stuff rate in 2011, things might get worse before they get better -- unless Pittsburgh does something about it.
(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)
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