Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

10 Dec 2005

Game Previews: CHI-PIT, KC-DAL

by Aaron Schatz

By now, most NFL teams know if they are going to be playing in January or not. But some teams are still on the bubble, making every game a must-win. That includes inter-conference matchups, because any tiebreaker with a division rival may come down to common games -- including the four against the other conference.

CHICAGO BEARS (9-3) at PITTSBURGH STEELERS (7-5)

(Sunday, 1pm)

On the surface, Chicago and Pittsburgh are similar teams, but they could not be going in more opposite directions. The Bears have won eight straight games and hold the inside track on a first-round bye in the NFC. The Steelers have lost three straight and, after falling to Cincinnati last week, basically must win out just to have a chance at an AFC wild card spot.

Chicago's Kyle Orton is in the same position now that Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger was last year, leading a team built around defense and a running game to a succession of wins. But the comparison should end there, because while Roethlisberger complimented last year's Pittsburgh running game with precision passing, Orton has been one of the worst quarterbacks in recent memory.

Roethliberger last year completed 66 percent of his passes, averaging 8.9 yards per attempt. Orton completes just 53 percent of his passes, averaging 5.1 yards per attempt. Orton also has 13 interceptions and 11 fumbles against nine touchdown passes.

Chicago's offense isn't entirely abhorrent. Thomas Jones has been surprisingly productive as the starting running back, and Muhsin Muhammad is still a talented wide receiver. But those strengths play right into the teeth of the Pittsburgh defense. The Steelers allow just 3.4 yards per carry, the lowest in the NFL. And according to Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) system -- which breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent -- Pittsburgh's pass defense ranks third in the league against number one receivers, even though it is just average against second and third wideouts.

Because Chicago is so good on defense, and so bad on offense, their recent run of glory has not featured many convincing victories. Although their eight-game win streak began with a 28-3 trampling of Minnesota, the Bears have won the other seven games by an average of just six points. Five of the wins came over teams that are 4-8 or worse.

The good news for the Bears is that Pittsburgh resembles Chicago's most impressive victim this season: the Carolina Panthers. Pittsburgh's offense, like Carolina's, is predicated on a strong running game which hasn't been so strong in 2005. After a fast start, Willie Parker has dropped to just 3.7 yards per carry in his last four games, while Jerome Bettis is averaging less than three yards per carry.

Like Carolina, Pittsburgh's passing game depends heavily on a single receiver who can beat one-on-one coverage (Hines Ward) but is rarely seeing such coverage because the team's other receivers have been subpar.

And with the running game unable to match its performance from last season, Roethlisberger has developed a nasty habit of forcing passes into coverage and throwing costly interceptions, much like Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme.

Add to this the disarray on the Pittsburgh offensive line, particularly injured left tackle Marvel Smith replaced by rookie Trai Essex, and the best offensive strategy for Pittsburgh might be to simply avoid offense, get into a field position battle with Chicago, and wait for a mistake either by Orton or a Chicago punt returner Bobby Wade, who has twice as many fumbles as any other returner in the NFL.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (8-4) at DALLAS COWBOYS (7-5)

(Sunday, 4:15pm)

The precarious playoff position of these two teams is just one reason why this game provides an interesting matchup. In an odd twist, DVOA ranks Kansas City sixth in offense and 14th in defense, and Dallas the exact opposite, 14th in offense and sixth in defense. Each team has half a strong defense in 2005: Kansas City can stop the run, while Dallas is doing much better against the pass.

But for the second straight week, the Cowboys will be facing a team whose preferences in the passing game match their weaknesses. Like the New York Giants, Kansas City depends heavily on a star tight end (Tony Gonzalez) and a single wide receiver (Eddie Kennison), with other wideouts relegated to minor roles. Dallas ranks first in the NFL in preventing success on passes to number two receivers, according to DVOA, but is 20th against number one receivers and 23rd against tight ends.

Dallas must also deal with running back Larry Johnson, who is averaging five yards per carry and leading the league's running backs in DVOA on rushing plays. Dallas' run defense has been just average and particularly has problems in short-yardage downs, stopping just one of 13 runs on third- or fourth-and-1.

The Cowboys expected a similar breakout year from Julius Jones, but he was derailed by injuries for much of the year. Jones and his backup, rookie Marion Barber, are together averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. Last year's Kansas City defense couldn't stop a crawling toddler from amassing 150 yards on the ground, but an improved front seven has turned that around. This year's Chiefs allow just 3.7 yards per carry, so long as the ballcarrier is not wearing a Denver Broncos uniform.

Of course, why try to run on the Chiefs if you can pass on them? The Chiefs play an aggressive style of defense, trusting their cornerbacks to play man-to-man. This leads to a lot of long pass plays, and the Chiefs give up 12.2 yards per reception, the third-highest average in the league. Those blitzing linebackers leave the middle of the field open, which presents Dallas with a dilemma. The Chiefs rank 29th in defending tight ends, and Jason Witten of the Cowboys is one of the league's best. But Drew Bledsoe only succeeds when he has time to throw, so the Cowboys want to leave extra blockers to pick up the Kansas City pass rush. Expect a lot of the two-tight end set with Witten as a receiver and Dan Campbell staying in to block.

The X-factor in this matchup is home field advantage. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this year Kansas City hasn't been much better at home than on the road. But for the Cowboys, the difference has been remarkable. At home, the Cowboys have gained 5.0 yards per play and allowed 4.7. On the road, the Cowboys have gained 4.7 yards per play allowed 5.0.

(Note to readers: I was originally going to run a table showing the top five teams with better offensive DVOA at home this season, and the top five teams with better defensive DVOA at home. But there were so many interesting little tidbits in the table that I decided to save it for next Tuesday's FOXSports.com commentary. Something to look forward to, but in the meantime I will tell you that the biggest total HFA this season belongs to San Francisco, and number two is Dallas. Kansas City is 18th.)

This article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 10 Dec 2005

24 comments, Last at 18 Dec 2005, 10:57am by Shock

Comments

1
by MRH (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 12:30am

It ruins the symmetry but KC has the #9 def in weighted DVOA and the #6 off in wtd DVOA while DAL has climbed to #5 in wtd defense and fallen to 17th in wtd offense. I'm liking the Chiefs chances, with Roaf and Wellbourne stabilizinf the o-line.

2
by Fnor (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 12:46am

Dear god I hope the Stillers can pull this off. At least beat Chicago. I don't think I could show my face around town if we lost to Chicago...

Mostly, I just want the hurting to stop.

3
by thad (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 1:34am

Yeah Bledsoe does well when he has time to pass but he is hardly Mark Rypien circa 1991.
He does a lot better when Dallas does not run on first and second down and then faces 3rd and 6+.

4
by TomC (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 2:49am

Nice analysis of PIT/CHI; I agree 100% with your breakdown of the Bears success this year.

Oh wait, that's because I get all my knowledge from FO.

5
by dbt (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 2:53am

As a Bears fan, I'm officially worried about the Safety situation. Losing Harris was bad enough, but without Mike Brown? Ouch...

6
by Paul (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 9:59am

What I like is that the teams are mirror images of each other, except that Dallas has way better special teams(which is surprising when you remember their kicking problems and KC's return guy)but the Chiefs have a much higher total DVOA. Ahh, the beauty of statistics...

7
by Michael David Smith :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 10:48am

Moving a misplaced comment...

Aaron,

The numbers sure makes sense in both these games. The commentary was superb.

Regarding Pitt/Chi game, winning streaks are hard to keep going, especially when you are not dominating teams. This would imply that the ball has been bouncing your way (fumbles, interceptions, penalties, etc..). As you state, these teams are similar but Big Ben is better than Orton. Pittsburg is due to win and Chi is due to lose. I know that has nothing to do with numbers but I think it will prove to be the difference. Pittsburgs hunger should pull this one out.

Regarding KC/Dallas, as a Denver fan I was impressed with both these teams the last two weeks. KC still lacks on defense, no matter what the numbers say. Even so, the difference this week is Willie Loaf. KC is potentially unstopable now that he is back. Green seems so much more calm knowing Loaf is there. Dallas will not be able to stop KC so for them to win, Bledsoe will have to be amazing–not happening.

Go Broncos

:: Born a Bronco Fan/Die a Bronco Fan — 12/10/2005 @ 8:25 am |

8
by Tom Kelso (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 11:37am

One more factor making it tough on the Bears -- Heinz Field is very rough on kickers, expecially visiting kickers. No visitor completed a field goal of more than 45 yards until Matt Stover hit a 47-yarder on Halloween. As Chicago has been dependent on rookie Robbie Gould lately for points, this could be quite a problem, especially at the more open end of Heinz.

On the flip side, if Roethlisberger's thumb is as bad as it was last week, he WILL throw interceptions, especially if Alex Brown is setting up shop under his face mask. Vasher and Tillman have to be aware of this.

I know I said Bears earlier in the week, but this will be close either way -- and certainly inside the 6-point line. Or is the over/under 6 for this game?

9
by calig23 (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 11:59am

Add to this the disarray on the Pittsburgh offensive line, particularly injured left tackle Marvel Smith replaced by rookie Trai Essex, and the best offensive strategy for Pittsburgh might be to simply avoid offense, get into a field position battle with Chicago, and wait for a mistake either by Orton or a Chicago punt returner Bobby Wade, who has twice as many fumbles as any other returner in the NFL.

The only problem with this is that the Steelers' special teams are awful at kick coverage. Reed is a terrible kickoff guy- unable to kick it deep or high, Gardocki has been pretty bad this year- especially the last 3 weeks or so, and several roster spots are wasted on supposed "ST aces" like Sean Morey and Chidi Iwuoma who have been worthless.

If the Steelers get into a field position battle, they will lose. Period.

10
by admin :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 12:58pm

Ah, but that's where the fumbles come in.

11
by Tom Kelso (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 1:20pm

How many of those fumbles came in the windblown travesty against San Francisco? Does that mitigate Wade's lead over the league any?

The Heath Shuler link is very interesting -- especially the Washington reaction in The New Republic -- but Heath is running in North Carolina, not Tennessee.

12
by admin :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 2:18pm

Thanks. Fixed. I'm an idiot.

13
by mactbone (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 4:21pm

Wade has been fumbling after catching the ball. Rasheid Davis has just flat out muffed two punts. That's the punt return situation though which means Reed's kicks aren't applicable. Azumah is the kick returner and has struggled some this year but he was dangerous two years ago when Dante Hall looked like the best returner and Azumah was the real burner.

14
by charles (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 4:43pm

Who's Heath Shuler's running mate, Michael Westbrook?

15
by Reinhard (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 4:47pm

Chicago has easily contained the run with its front seven (remember the Washington game when they were angry that they allowed Portis to run for 80 yards on 20 carries?), generated tremendous pressure with its front four, and created points and field position with its dbs. IF they play like this against Pittsburgh, then only fumbles or interceptions (WITH GOOD RETURNS) can lose them the game.

The other way in which I see them losing is if Ward starts making big catches and runs like Galloway did. Tillman is outmatched in one-on-one coverage, and if Todd Johnson and Mike Green are playing deep, then Ward can be succesful. He is talented enough that instead of taking a long reception into field goal range (you dont really want to be in the redzone against the Bears...) he can create a TD, which, in the past eight games, have been huge.

16
by charles (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 5:43pm

Chicago has easily contained the run with its front seven (remember the Washington game when they were angry that they allowed Portis to run for 80 yards on 20 carries?),

Portis had 21 carries for 121 in the chicago game, 5.8 yd average.

17
by charles (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 5:46pm

Antowain Smith also had 110 yards on 17 carries against the Bears. It's possible for the steelers to run on the bears.

18
by Reinhard (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 11:16pm

16: I understand that, but that includes one important 41 yarder, and Lovie Smith was explaining after the game that it was not that particular run that worried him, but the consistent yardage that the other ones did. I was more trying to point out the mindset of the defense rather than its effectiveness with those numbers. Conventional wisdom, DVOA, NFL ranks all agree: the Bears are the hardest team to run on.

19
by Reinhard (not verified) :: Sat, 12/10/2005 - 11:17pm

bleh, i see they are #3 rush defence on DVOA now. I guess DVOA is broken :)

20
by Kenny (not verified) :: Sun, 12/11/2005 - 12:34am

Being a bears fan, this will probably be the toughest team we have faced so far besides cinci. I think we can win this one, and i have a feeling that Orton really steps it up this game, if he doesn't and the bears lose, i think Rex needs to comeback and show us his stuff.

21
by NFC Central Freak (not verified) :: Sun, 12/11/2005 - 11:03am

Do not be surprised that if Orton struggles out of the gate Rex comes into the game.

Just a hunch.......

22
by TOPCAT (not verified) :: Wed, 12/14/2005 - 3:43am

I READ YOUR WEEK 15 RANKING AND I SEE THAT REGARDLESS OF WHAT DALLAS DOES THEY DROP IN THE RANKING, YOUR REASON BECAUSE THEY GOT LUCKY BUT AFTER WATCHING SUNDAY'S GAME EVERYONE GOT LUCKY GIANT BARELY SURVIVED PHILLY, CHARGERS BEAT BY MIAMI, CHICAGO EXPOSED BY PITTSBURGH, WASHINGTON LUCK, I GUESS YOU ARE JUST ANAL FOR THE COWBOYS, BUT IF YOU OUT SCORE ONE OF THE NFL TOP OFFENSES AND DRIVE THE LENGTH OF THE FIELD FOR THE WINNING TOUCHDOWN IS LUCKY THE I GUESS THAT IS A LABEL WE WILL KEEP, I GUESS WHEN WE BEAT WASHINGTON, WE WILL DROP 5 MORE SPOTS.I GUESS THE COWBOYS WHO ARE 8-5 WHICH LARGEST LOST WAS BY 7 POINTS PLUS HAD SEATTLE,WASHINGTON,DENVER, BEATEN UNTIL LAST MINUTES, ALL TEAMS THAT ARE RANKED HIGHER THAN DALLAS, I GUESS RESPECT IS SOMETHING YOU HAVE TO EARN BUT I THINK AARON SCHATZ, YOU ARE JUST A PRICK WHEN IT COMES TO THE COWBOYS. I LOOK FORWARD TO READING NEXT WEEKS RANKING.

23
by thad (not verified) :: Wed, 12/14/2005 - 10:38pm

re 22
Maybe we could just dial it down a tiny bit.
I have seen almost every Dallas game this year.
I was quite pleased with the play of the O-line against the Chiefs.
However, there have been way way too many games where the o line has sucked.
I certainly hope dallas beats washington but if they play like the second game against the Giants, well the skins will probably stomp them.
I think its very hard to win in the NFL with a poor line and Dallas has quite a ways to go.

24
by Shock (not verified) :: Sun, 12/18/2005 - 10:57am

Man o Man, every time I bring myself to glance at your power rankings I get a big laugh. Thanks for the laugh. I think maybe you are watching some other league in another dimension. Well I guess you are like most of the media, ignore the facts.