Sunday's upset was the latest in a series of unexpected wins for Jeff Fisher and the Rams. How do they keep pulling this off?
04 Dec 2004
by Aaron Schatz
The slate of early games on this week's NFL schedule is but an appetizer for football fans, with two late afternoon games as the main course. In one, San Diego and Denver battle for the AFC West title. In the other, Green Bay tries to show Philadelphia that its path to the Super Bowl is not entirely unobstructed.
San Diego's record stood at 1-2 after losing to Denver 23-13 on September 26. Drew Brees threw for only 121 yards in that game and looked more impressive as a receiver than as a passer after a touchdown reception on a halfback option. Through three games he had completed only 54 percent of passes, and fans were calling for first-round pick Philip Rivers to take over as starting quarterback.
Since then the Chargers are 7-1 and have scored more points than every team in football except Indianapolis. Over those eight games, Brees has completed 69 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and just a single interception. His favorite target, Antonio Gates, is only one touchdown away from tying the tight end single season record of 12. Among Charger fans, calls for Rivers to replace Brees have been replaced by agonized attempts to figure out how the Chargers could possibly keep both.
Now the Chargers and Broncos meet again with the AFC West title on the line. If the Chargers win, they will have a two-game lead on the Broncos with three of their four remaining games against below-.500 opponents. If the Broncos win, however, their season sweep over San Diego will give them the tiebreaker advantage should both teams finish the season with an equal number of victories.
Gates would seem to be the perfect weapon against a Denver defense that constantly left Oakland receivers open in the middle of the field last Sunday night. But with one exception, Atlanta's Alge Crumpler, no opposing tight end has had more than 35 yards receiving against the Broncos. They held Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez to a season-low 17 yards, and Gates himself to a season-low 30 yards. No tight end this year has scored a touchdown against them.
|Defensive DVOA vs. Specific Receivers
(with rank out of 32 teams)
|Remember, defensive DVOA is better
when it is negative;
DVOA vs. specific receivers does not consider
sacks or passes without intended receivers.
Instead, Denver needs to worry about San Diego's wide receivers, particularly Eric Parker. According to Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) ratings, which compare performance on every play of the season to league average (explained here), Denver has been near the top of the league defending passes against running backs as well as tight ends -- but they have been below average defending passes to wide receivers and one of the league's five worst teams defending passes to number two receivers. Young, quick receivers like Oakland's Jerry Porter, Cincinnati's Chad Johnson, and Carolina's Keary Colbert have had big games against the Broncos, and Parker fits that mold.
San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson and Denver's Reuben Droughns will play a role in this game, but expect the importance of these running backs to be overstated. Tomlinson has been hobbled by groin and toe injuries and he has seen last year's 5.3 yards per carry average drop to a subpar 3.8 yards per carry. Droughns, meanwhile, has racked up big numbers against bad defenses, but San Diego is excellent at stopping the ground game. They allow a mere 3.8 yards per carry, fifth best in the league, and are also one of the best teams at preventing rushes from converting on third-and-short. The only time Droughns faced a run defense that came close in quality, he had a mere 49 yards in 15 carries against Atlanta.
San Diego, however, cannot stop the pass the way they can stop the run. They have no pass rush, a major problem against a strong offensive line like Denver's and a quarterback who avoids sacks like Jake Plummer. Plummer has been sacked only seven times, third best in the league; San Diego only has 19 sacks, third worst in the league. Plummer threw for 294 yards and two touchdowns the first time these teams met, and he'll need a similar game to match the proficient San Diego scoring machine. Watch for tight end Jeb Putzier to play a major role; the Chargers are as poor against opposition tight ends as the Broncos are strong, and Putzier caught all five passes thrown his way for 66 yards in the first meeting of these teams.
The Packers ride a six-game winning streak into the stadium that holds bitter memories. Last year, to complete a playoff upset of the favored Eagles, Green Bay needed only to stop Donovan McNabb from converting a pass on 4th-and-26. Instead, the defense folded, the Eagles came back to win the game, and the season was over.
The Packers have been seeing that pass over and over in their sleep for months, so the multitude of similar passes flying through the air Sunday will be familiar. No player has been hyped more this season than Philadelphia receiver Terrell Owens, but he should more than live up to that hype on Sunday because the Green Bay secondary has been about as permeable as a beaded curtain.
According to our DVOA ratings, the Packers rank 30th in pass defense this season, while the Eagles are second in pass offense. It will be particularly surprising if the Packers force Donovan McNabb to throw an interception; the Packers have only seven of them this season, and the Eagles have thrown only five.
The heart of the Green Bay defense is nose tackle Grady Jackson, but his return from injury six weeks ago had a much greater effect on the Packer run defense than on the pass defense. A number of players in the secondary are still playing with minor injuries, and Packer fans are used to regularly seeing both veteran Al Harris and his rookie cornerback partner Ahmad Carroll burned by opposing receivers.
|Green Bay Defensive DVOA||vs. Pass||vs. Rush|
|with Grady Jackson (Weeks 1, 7-12)||25.3%||-9.1%|
|without Grady Jackson (Weeks 2-6)||47.7%||7.1%|
Despite Jackson's return, the last four weeks have seen the Packers give up their four highest yardage totals of the season to opposing number one receivers: 170 yards to Isaac Bruce of St. Louis, 141 yards to Nate Burleson of Minnesota (Moss' injury made him the de facto number one), 107 yards to Andre Johnson of Houston, and 84 yards to Laveranues Coles of Washington. That means that the Packers need the safeties to help cornerback Al Harris covering Owens, and that will leave Carroll helpless against Todd Pinkston or Freddie Mitchell.
(Yes, I know that reader comments seem to feel Harris has been very good this season. The numbers just disagree. I'm curious to watch him closely on Sunday to see where the disconnect is.)
But just as Philadephia is well-equipped to penetrate the weakness of the Green Bay secondary, so is Green Bay perfectly constructed to take advantage of Philadelphia's weakness stopping the run. Pittsburgh handed the Eagles their only loss with a constant barrage of 255-pound Jerome Bettis, chewing up yardage and the clock to keep Owens and McNabb off the field. Packers halfback Ahman Green is supposed to return from injury Sunday, but if the Packers are smart they'll split carries between Green and 247-pound backup Najeh Davenport, who fits the Bettis mold and gained 178 yards on a mere 19 carries Monday night against the Rams.
Fans who want to appreciate strong offensive line play should spend the game watching Packers left guard Mike Wahle. A favorite Green Bay strategy is to run right with Wahle pulling to become the lead blocker. This play should work extra well against a Philadelphia front where the two players on that side, Javon Kearse and Corey Simon, are much better known as pass rushers than as run stoppers.
Strong Packer rushing early will be an indication that Philadelphia is headed for its second loss. Packer quarterback Brett Favre may be the only NFL player with more media coverage than Owens, but if Green Bay has to put the ball in his hands to win this game they are in trouble.
An edited version of this article originally appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.