Of all the national playoff contenders, Michigan State might be the most dangerous in the postseason.
30 Oct 2004
This is a slightly extended version of an article I wrote in Friday's New York Sun. At the bottom, I've added some extra commentary about the Denver-Atlanta matchup from a reader who follows each team as well as my own observations from watching highlights of last week's Atlanta game that didn't make it into the article.
There will be much attention this week paid to undefeated New England's visit to Pittsburgh, as well as the matchup between the Giants and Minnesota Vikings. But this week also brings two games of particular interest in which a top AFC team takes on a top NFC team. What makes these games worth watching is that each pits one team's strength against the other team's corresponding strength: The Baltimore defense against the Philadelphia offense, and the Denver running game against the Atlanta front seven.
This game -- not the Pittsburgh-New England contest -- may actually be the premier contest of Week 8 in the NFL, because it is such a strong matchup of opposites. Baltimore's defense is allowing only 4.4 yards per play, second in the NFL, and Philadelphia's offense is gaining 6.4 yards per play, also second in the NFL. (It's also worth noting that Philadelphia and Baltimore possess two of the three most valuable special teams units in the NFL this season.)
A stalwart Baltimore defense is nothing new, and neither is poor performance from their passing attack, with Kyle Boller looking as confused as Carson from Queer Eye in the Red Sox clubhouse. The difference between this year's squads and the one from 2003 is the running game -- but not in the way people expect. Even though Jamal Lewis broke the 2000-yard barrier last season, this year's Raven rushing attack has been more effective on a play-by-play basis, with more success on third downs and no fumbles over the first six games. And there's been no dropoff from Lewis, suspended for pleading guilty in a drug case, to Chester Taylor, who will start this Sunday. Taylor even has a higher yards per carry average this season, 5.2 yards per carry to Lewis' 4.7. Our own Football Outsiders statistics also rate Taylor higher his 34.1% DVOA (explained here) ranks second among running backs over 40 carries, while Lewis' 14.5% DVOA ranks him ninth.
With Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden out with a hamstring injury and Lewis on the sidelines, the Ravens may come out with a game plan that shifts their focus from the run to the pass. This would be a mistake. Run defense is the Eagles one glaring weakness.
The Ravens gain more yards per carry running right than running left because of a blocking scheme where Ogden and guard Edwin Mulitalo create a cutback hole for Lewis; this week, they may want to concentrate instead on more conventional blocking for runs right and then mix in runs left if the Eagles overcompensate because of Ogden's absence.
So far this season the Eagles offense has successfully mixed the run and the pass with Brian Westbrook emerging as an every down back. But if Westbrook is slowed by a chest contusion suffered last week, the Eagles will have to pass more and run less. They won't be able to favor the screen pass they love so much, since Westbrook is hurt and Ray Lewis eats pass-catching running backs for breakfast.
Watch out for the tight ends, as both Chad Lewis and L.J. Smith have been effective this season and the Ravens are comparatively week against passes to the tight end. The Ravens allow the league average in yards per pass to tight ends (6.6 yds/catch) but far below the league average in passes to wide receivers (7.2 yds/catch compared to the NFL average 8.0 yds/catch) and running backs (3.0 yds/catch compared to the NFL average 5.5 yds/catch).
There is also an emotional element to this game. Eagles wideout Terrell Owens has spent the last week sniping at the team that acquired and then un-acquired him during the offseason. Of course, a similar subplot existed last week, with Owens facing his former quarterback Jeff Garcia. The difference is that Garcia and Owens are never on the field together, and Garcia can't hit Owens. The same is not true of the Baltimore defense.
A week ago, both of these teams were 5â€“1, and this game was set up as a battle between the Denver rushing attack -- once again ascendant after plugging Reuben Droughns in at tailback -- and the Atlanta rush defense, ranked number one in the NFL. Then both teams lost last week. The Broncos were embarrassed on national television by the hapless Cincinnati Bengals, 23â€“10. But at least they kept it close through the first half; the Falcons were pummeled by Kansas City 56â€“10, and in the process saw their previously impervious rush defense disintegrate as Priest Holmes and his backup Derrick Blaylock ran for four touchdowns apiece.
So the major question of this game is: Which Atlanta rush defense will show up? The one that collapsed against Kansas City, or the one that led the league over the first six games? Making things more interesting is the fact that Atlanta's offensive line coach, Alex Gibbs, is the man who created the famous Broncos run blocking system during nine seasons in Denver.
As fascinating as the schizophrenic Atlanta defense might be, the Falcons will have a hard time winning this game even if they revert to their previous run-stopping form. Nearly everything else about this game points to a mismatch. According to DVOA, Denver ranked higher than Atlanta on both offense and defense after six weeks. Last week's disaster makes the gap even larger: Denver currently ranks 14th in offense, sixth in defense, while Atlanta is 25th in offense, 16th in defense. Michael Vick has had major troubles adapting to the new offense installed by coordinator Greg Knapp, and with Champ Bailey covering his main receiver, there's no reason to think it is going to get any easier this week.
The one advantage Atlanta has over Denver is on special teams, particularly on punts. Atlanta's only touchdown against Kansas City came on a punt return by the underrated Allen Rossum. Over the past two seasons, Atlanta has had the NFL's third most valuable punt return unit, while the Denver punt coverage unit has been the NFL's fourth-worst this season and the worst in 2003. Atlanta has a similar, though slightly smaller, advantage when they are punting to the Broncos.
The likely storyline for an Atlanta upset involves the run defense returning to top form, forcing Denver into a lot of third-and-long situations and punts. Rossum can then gain the sort of field position that gives Jay Feely a chance to kick long field goals and Vick a chance to bust one big highlight-reel touchdown scamper.
I went back and watched the Kansas City-Atlanta highlights available on digital cable "on demand." Now, I have not been watching either team every week during the season so I cannot tell you how this compares to previous games, but I noticed a couple of things about all of Kansas City's successful runs.
First, they were almost all either sweeps left or draw plays up the middle. There wasn't anything off guard or off tackle, or right up the middle into the pile (except for the touchdown runs jumping over the pile. It was on those draw plays where the Chiefs offensive line really manhandled Atlanta, creating a hole bigger than the chance that Tuesday's election ends in recounts, lawsuits, and overall madness.
Second, almost every good sweep saw the erstwhile Atlanta tackler taken out by Tony Richardson. He was a madman out there.
I emailed Vince Verhei, an Atlanta fan, and asked him: In the past, did the Falcons have a hard time with draws or sweeps, or fullbacks? I also emailed Jordy Singer, a Denver fan, and asked him the opposite question: Does Denver depend a lot on draws or sweeps, and who plays fullback now that Droughns is the tailback?
Here's Vince's response:
Actually, and this is all anecdotal, but it seems like draws and sweeps have had the least success against Atlanta. Of course, before Sunday, nothing worked consistently against the Falcons' defense. As for the defensive tackles, do not underestimate the importance of Rod Coleman, or the impact of his loss. Chad Lavalais and Cleveland Pinkney (that is really someone's name) were able to hold their own against San Diego, but Kansas City is not San Diego. And Ed Jasper has always been the kind of guy who will push for penetration into a certain gap. If that's the gap the running back goes through, that's great. If not, he's just taken himself out of the play.
I don't know if any fullback has run them over like Richardson did, but linebackers Keith Brooking and Chris Draft had trouble with fullbacks last year. And Chris Draft may not be Dick Butkus, but he's better than Jamie Duncan, who played Sunday because Draft was out. Of course, some say Richardson's the best blocking back in the league, and Tony Gonzalez, while almost invisible as a receiver, was also a blocking force last Sunday.
Also, even when KC's runners weren't running for TDs, they were catching passes: 9 for 120-plus yards, both season highs for Atlanta's D. That's a further indictment of the linebackers.
And now, the view from Denver (well, Sunday Ticket at the Coolidge Corner Clubhouse in Brookline) with Mr. Singer:
The Denver running game mixes things up pretty well. Droughns is a classic downhill runner, one cut and go. Most of his stuff is up the middle, and in the last couple weeks, it seems like he has more trouble when he tries to take it outside. The Broncos will also run a couple of end-arounds every week (with Rod Smith or Darius Watts), and those have been pretty successful as of late.
The fullback situation is pretty fluid. They have been using the tight ends a lot as lead blockers (primarily Patrick Hape, sometimes Jeb Putzier). Hape is a good blocker; Putzier is okay. Kyle Johnson was in as a fullback on some plays last Monday night, but I don't think he was very effective.
There you go, you are now fully set to watch Denver play Atlanta. Unless, like me, you'll me watching Steelers-Patriots instead.