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?
13 May 2013
by Mike Ridley
In our last installment of this series, we chronicled the Broncos’ need for interior run defenders. Since that time, the Broncos have been able to re-sign Kevin Vickerson, add Terrance Knighton, and draft Sylvester Williams, three essential cogs to stopping the run near the line of scrimmage. On the linebacker front, however, Denver hasn’t been nearly as proactive.
In 2012, Football Outsiders ranked Denver’s rush defense among the league’s best. They were fourth overall in run defense DVOA, third in Second Level Yards, and first in Open Field Yards. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.) The last two metrics show how productive linebackers and the secondary are at stopping the run once it breaks into the second level. To add further evidence, Denver’s defensive Adjusted Line Yards for runs directed between the guards was sixth-best in the league.
A big reason for these high rankings was Keith Brooking. After Week 6, when the Broncos chose to start Brooking over Joe Mays, Denver went from allowing 120.2 rushing yards per game to just 77.9 yards per game. Denver’s average DVOA against the rush also saw improvement, moving from -17.62% to -22.21% during the eleven games Brooking started. Brooking’s ability to lead and organize the defense on the field with his pre-snap reads paid huge dividends. With Brooking currently unsigned and turning 38 in October, Denver would be wise to pursue a veteran free agent to supplement Mays. Given how poorly Mays has adapted to defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s system, this could be a problem for the Broncos.
The Broncos signed receiver Quincy McDuffie, who could make the team as a return specialist. He was named a Sports Illustrated All-American as a kick returner. Gary Mason was a three-year starter at defensive end for Baylor and has a ton of strength. Cornerback Aaron Hester was a four-year starter at UCLA, including starting all 14 games in 2012.
When Kansas City’s new regime of Andy Reid and John Dorsey took over this winter, they immediately addressed the team’s biggest weakness by trading a second-round pick and a contingent 2014 pick for Alex Smith. By no means does this solidify the Chiefs’ quarterback situation for the next decade, but it provides a nice stop-gap option, allowing the focus to shift to other areas of weakness, most notably wide receiver.
The Chiefs have a competent receiver in Dwayne Bowe, who broke out in 2010 but has regressed in each of the following years. In 2012, he had his lowest total receiving value since his rookie season. Beyond him is Dexter McCluster, who was unimpressive by both conventional and advanced statistics in 2012. McCluster’s 8.7 yards per reception ranked 85th out of 86 receivers with at least 50 pass targets, and his total receiving value by Football Outsiders metrics ranked 78th. Former first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin was even worse, catching just 20 of the 47 passes and earned the 15th lowest total receiving value out of all receivers with ten or more targets.
Kansas City has attempted to address this issue by signing Donnie Avery from the Colts, although he’s nothing to get the Chiefs’ fans overly excited. He was one of only a few players that rated worse in total receiving value than McCluster, finishing with the fifth-lowest DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) among receivers. In fact, in the three seasons that he played at least eight games, Avery has failed to finish with a positive DYAR or DVOA. Bowe has the ability to be an upper-tier receiver, but he needs to lower his drops and refine his route-running. Picking athletic tight end Travis Kelce in the third round should also allow for more two-tight end packages, causing more mismatches. With all that said, the addition of the much more consistent Smith could be the biggest factor in fixing the Chiefs’ receiving woes.
Tyler Bray is the obvious standout in this class. He’s got a live arm and loads of talent. If he can start making better reads, he’ll be in discussion for the Chiefs long-term answer at quarterback. Defensive end Rob Lohr was a productive player at Vanderbilt. Finally, the Chiefs will hope Demetrius Harris is the next basketballer-turned-tight end to find success in the NFL. Harris comes from UW-Milwaukee, a school that doesn't even have a football program.
Luckily for Raider nation, general manager Reggie McKenzie clearly has a plan in place and has addressed many areas of need through smart free agency signings and a decent draft. He’s gotten rid of most of their egregious contracts and has started to build a base for the future. Considering Oakland is dealing with about $40 million in dead salary cap money from the last few years of the Al Davis era, that is no small accomplishment.
One situation that McKenzie has neglected so far is that of the interior offensive linemen. While the group was solid in pass protection, having the fourth-best Adjusted Sack Rate in 2012, they were among the league’s worst in opening holes for the running game. The Raiders’ offensive Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) ranked 29th, their Power Rank was 28th and their Stuffed Rank was 25th. The futility is truly shown when looking at directional ALY. When running in between the left and right guards, the Raiders ranked 28th in ALY, compared to 10th and 19th when running at the left and right tackle, respectively.
The Raiders have seemed to acknowledge this weakness by not offering 16-game starter Cooper Carlisle a contract. They’re optimistic for increased productivity from new offensive coordinator Greg Olson’s man-blocking scheme. The zone-blocking scheme under prior coordinator Greg Knapp was a poor fit for the current personnel. If the plan comes to fruition and the interior of the line is able to open more holes for an electrifying-when-healthy Darren McFadden and allow him to get into the second level more often, the Raiders offense should see a significant improvement.
Bobby Cowan (Idaho) was second-team All-WAC in 2012 and could challenge Marquette King for punting duties. Receiver Conner Vernon (Duke) is the only player in ACC history to register two seasons with 70 or more receptions and left as the conference’s all-time reception leader. Deveric Gallington made 38 starts for Texas Tech and could help the interior of the Raiders’ offensive line.
As bad as Oakland’s interior line is, San Diego’s entire front five is even worse. The Chargers had the worst Adjusted Sack Rate in the NFL with Philip Rivers being pulled down on a whopping 8.9 percent of his dropbacks after adjusting for schedule strength (league average was 6.5 percent). The 47 sacks allowed were fourth-worst in the league and the offensive line’s continuity was non-existent, having nine different starters and nine game-to-game changes in personnel. If the Chargers want to compete in the AFC West (and keep Rivers healthy), they desperately need to fix their offensive line.
The Chargers solutions so far are about on par with putting new paint on a rusty car. They signed King Dunlap away from Philadelphia to man the left side. Although he did account for 6.3 sacks allowed in 2012, it would still represent a 66.7 percent decrease compared to the Chargers’ left tackles last season. Left guard will be filled by Chad Rinehart, even though he is better suited as a backup. Johnnie Troutman, a 2012 fifth-round pick with zero NFL experience, is slated to replace the departed Louis Vasquez at right guard. The cream of the crop is former Alabama right tackle D.J. Fluker, whom San Diego chose with the twelve overall pick. He’s a mauler in the run game, but will need to hone his technique in pass protection to keep Rivers upright.
San Diego is a team that is desperate for quality line play. Over the last few seasons, Rivers’ performance has fallen as the quality upfront has deteriorated. The pass rush bothered Rivers so badly in 2012 that he saw his Total QBR sink to a career-worst 40.6, which is Blaine Gabbert territory. If San Diego isn’t able to improve along the front five (or somehow trade for Branden Albert), Rivers could find himself vying for the league lead in giveaways for the second consecutive season.
Kwame Geathers (Georgia) and Brandon Moore (Texas) are sure to help a defensive line that lost two of its three starters during the offseason. The former is a massive man who can handle the nose in the Chargers 3-4, while the latter could be a player at the five-technique. Jamarkus McFarland from Oklahoma also has the raw skills to also contribute along the front three.
(Parts of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)
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