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?
20 Feb 2012
by Mike Kurtz
Two years ago, Chicago sold a lot -– if not the farm, than at least several large barns -– to Denver for Jay Cutler. For the past two seasons we have been privileged to see what happens when you take an ostensibly elite quarterback and surround him with no talent whatsoever. The 13.0% DVOA that the Bears had with Cutler under center last season would have ranked them 19th in the league.
The offensive tackles, particularly J'Marcus Webb, were among the worst tackles in the league. Leading the charge to a 31st-place Adjusted Sack Rate was Webb, who finished near the top of the offensive lineman wall of shame with 10 sacks allowed. He didn't have issues with one sort of player, either, despite giving up three sacks to Jared Allen in a single game. Webb was beaten by bull rushes, by hand fakes, and by most anyone with anything resembling a quick step.
Webb's counterpart at right tackle, Lance Louis, at least has sound technique. But he lacks push off the ball, which is a severe liability in the running game; Chicago ranked 25th in Adjusted Line Yards on runs to right tackle. Despite all this, newly minted offensive coordinator Mike Tice is reportedly committed to all of the current lackluster starting linemen. Tice, in fact, had made noises about turning Chicago's offense into a far more run-heavy attack, which makes some sense considering the talent of Matt Forte, but doesn't factor in the part where the Bears finished 24th in Adjusted Line Yards and had a catastrophic 24.1 percent of runs stuffed for no gain or a loss in 2011. Unless the bookends are replaced, look for Forte's impressive skill to once again by squandered in 2012.
Of course, Tice may be taking this tack in response to the state of Chicago's receiving corps, which is a carousel of possession receivers with mediocre ball skills. The top duo were Johnny Knox and Roy Williams, who had above-average seasons, finishing 35th and 38th in DVOA, respectively. Unfortunately, that is a league-wide average that includes a sizable sample of No. 3 receivers, and the Bears are still desperately looking for a receiver that goes beyond that tier.
Green Bay's defense isn't quite as bad as raw yardage would have you believe (they check in at 24th by DVOA), but that is damning with faint praise. The steep decline in play from the hybrid 3-4/4-3 line affected the linebacking corps by not soaking up blocks; Clay Matthews saw his sack total fall from 13.5 in 2010 to 6 in 2011. Because the pass rush wasn't getting to the passer, quarterbacks made fewer mistakes, and the team's interception total dropped from 31 to 24. In fact, the Packers were near the bottom of the league in sacks, despite the fact that Green Bay's high-octane offense caused its defense to face more passes than any other team in the league. The Packers defense was dead last in Adjusted Sack Rate, 1.9 percent below the league average.
The rushing defense didn't have the same precipitous fall from grace as the passing defense, but nonetheless fell from relatively average to near the bottom of the league in every single category aside from Open Field Yards, where the aging but still talented secondary, led by Charles Woodson, was able to bail the rest of the defense out. In fact, of Green Bay's top-five tacklers, four ( Morgan Burnett, Charlie Peprah, Woodson and Tramon Williams) were defensive backs. That is always a bad sign.
Assigning blame among a line is never easy, but the team is secure with Pro Bowler B.J. Raji, who regularly draws double teams on both running and passing downs. End/3-technique tackle Ryan Pickett also played well when he was actually on the field, which was infrequently. The rest of the assembled squad was extremely unimpressive, particularly second-year end C.J. Wilson, who fits the physical profile of an end/linebacker hybrid but in two years attempting to replace Aaron Kampman has displayed none of his talent. Another youngster, Jarius Wynn, had similar struggles and was a complete liability in the running game, contributing greatly to the league-worst Adjusted Line Yards on runs to the offensive left end. The good news for cheeseheads is that Green Bay's defensive scheme is possibly the most flexible in the league, so when the draft comes around –- and general manager Ted Thompson is a strong believer in building through the draft rather than free agency –- the front office should be able to find a few orphaned players other teams cannot find roles for.
Minnesota may have the worst secondary in the league, considering how consistently awful it is in coverage against every type of receiver: 29th against passes to their opponents' No. 1 receivers; 30th against passes to their opponents' No. 2 receivers, and dead last against all other receivers. The Vikings clearly knew about this problem, rotating defensive backs with the zeal of a rotisserie gone haywire. Minnesota started 11 different cornerbacks and safeties over the course of the season.
All of which were awful. Only two Minnesota cornerbacks have 40 charted targets or more in our game charting data: Cedric Griffin and Asher Allen. Out of the 80 cornerbacks included in this group, Griffin finished 77th with 10.5 yards per pass and 78th with a 38 percent success rate. Allen was slightly better about giving up chunks of yardage, finishing 68th at 9.2 yards per pass, but allowed so many short first-down conversions that he finishes dead last with a 33 percent success rate.
Fortunately, there may be a few opportunities to bolster this unit in free agency, as the Titans may not be able to hold on to both Cortland Finnegan and Michael Griffin, and either would be a huge upgrade for the Vikings. Carlos Rogers is also an intriguing possibility as an unrestricted free agent, but his price tag may be out of reach.
The Vikings may be tempted to try to bolster their pass defense via the draft, but their third-place draft position makes it a bit of a gamble. Defensive backs are plentiful in the draft, making a high-profile pick a bit uncommon in light of more scarce talent at other positions, such as offensive tackle and defensive end. In fact, in the past 10 years, only two cornerbacks were taken in the top-five picks: Patrick Peterson (2011, Arizona) and Terence Newman (2003, Dallas). However, in light of the current situation here, it may be wise for Minnesota to select a relatively high-profile defensive back, like those mentioned above, to anchor the defense and use deep draft picks to start building for the future. LSU's Morris Claiborne might fit the bill.
The book on the 2011 Lions was that they were an awful running team that had to rely on the pass. Indeed, Detroit finished tenth in passing DVOA and right in the middle of the pack in rushing DVOA. However, Matthew Stafford was phenomenal, contributing 1,446 DYAR to the offense, more even than Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning. Stafford also has astoundingly quick feet and surprisingly good pocket presence. His Manning-esque ability to evade pressure contributed greatly to an impressive 10th-ranked Adjusted Sack Rate for the Lions offense.
Detroit's maligned running backs played in one of the most even-handed platoons in the league. We at Football Outsiders separate running backs with fewer than 100 rushes from the main list of running backs, due to concern over the smaller sample size. No Lions running back ran with enough frequency to reach that threshold. With that caveat, however, both Kevin Smith (7.2% DVOA) and Jahvid Best (5.8% DVOA) were above-average backs in their limited time. Smith, in fact, was precisely as valuable on a value-per-play basis (DVOA) as Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro Maurice Jones-Drew. Smith was also extremely valuable in the passing game, with a DVOA of 27.2%, good for eighth-best among running backs.
By demonstrating the utility of the rest of the offense, we expose the severe issues with Detroit's offensive line that conventional statistics obscure. Detroit sported the second-worst offensive line in the league by Adjusted Line Yards, and Smith and Best look even more impressive in light of the fact that the Lions' line allowed the defense to stuff 21 percent of all running plays. While none of these linemen distinguish themselves in any way, center Dominic Raiola and right guard Stephen Peterman played particularly awful and greatly contributed to Detroit's 28th-ranked power running game. Tackles Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus, on the other hand, were poor in pass blocking; Backus gave up 7.5 sacks according to tape analysis, and Cherilus 6.5. Most of these sacks were complete failures to block anybody, including one play where Cherilus was beaten on a two-man rush. Fortunately, Detroit can make immediate repairs in the 2012 draft, where a number of quality linemen project out somewhere around Detroit's 23rd pick. Players like Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler and Ohio State's Mike Adams, both of whom could play immediately and be instant upgrades, should be available.
(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)
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