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Our season finale of catch radius focuses on the growing size of Josh McCown's talented receiving duos, including breakout stud Alshon Jeffery. Also: Anquan Boldin's incredible year.

24 Dec 2005

Game Previews: DAL-CAR, ATL-TB

by Aaron Schatz

DALLAS COWBOYS (8-6) at CAROLINA PANTHERS (10-4)

(Saturday, 1pm)

Four weeks ago, these two teams had the same 7-3 record. Now the Panthers can clinch a playoff spot with a win, while Dallas comes close to elimination with a loss. But even before the past month, the Cowboys and Panthers were headed in different directions. Just look, for example, at each team's defense against the passing game.

After six weeks, Carolina's pass defense ranked 12th 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. Since Carolina's Week 7 bye week, only the Giants and Bears have done a better job stopping the pass. The Panthers have gone from allowing 6.3 net yards per pass in their first six games to 4.5 net yards per pass in their last eight.

Dallas had its bye week after eight games. At that point, the Cowboys had allowed just 5.4 net yards per pass, and ranked seventh in pass defense DVOA. But in the six games since, Dallas is allowing 6.3 net yards per pass, and DVOA ranks them 24th.

The downward trend is bad, but even worse for Dallas is the way their pass defense matches up against the Panthers. DVOA ranks Dallas as the best defense in the league on passes to number two receivers, and fourth on passes to slot receivers. But they rank 23rd in defending number one receivers. These receivers average 13.9 yards per reception leaguewide, but 17.9 yards per reception against Dallas.

And Carolina, of course, depends more on a single receiver than any other team in the league. Steve Smith leads the league with 93 catches and 1,414 yards. Smith is the target of 35 percent of Carolina passes and has caught 68 percent of those passes. The league average for wideouts is 56 percent, and the only starting NFC receiver who has caught a higher percentage of passes is Seattle's Bobby Engram.

Dallas depends on a more diversified passing attack, but like the defense, it has faded since the start of the year. The Dallas offense ranked fifth in passing DVOA during the first six weeks of the season (7.0 net yards per pass), but is 17th since (5.2 net yards per pass). Carolina is excellent at covering wide receivers, although they have a weakness against tight ends that Dallas can exploit with Jason Witten.

What about the running game? Carolina gains just 3.4 yards per carry, 31st in the league, but allows just 3.6 yards per carry, third in the league. Dallas is mediocre running the ball and mediocre at stopping the run. Given those facts, it is hard to see the run mattering either way.

With last week's 35-7 blowout, Washington dismantled the Cowboys and the dreams of their fans as well. Carolina should take care of any leftover demolition work on Saturday.

ATLANTA FALCONS (8-6) at TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (9-5)

(Saturday, 1pm)

This is the second game between Carolina's rivals for the NFC South title. Tampa Bay won the first game on the road 30-27, thanks to a Matt Bryant field goal in the final minute. Both teams are coming off dismal road losses in the cold, but those games won't have much bearing on the result in tropical Tampa.

Tampa rookie Cadillac Williams, for example, ran for just 23 yards on 14 carries against New England last week. In the previous four games, however, Williams had 408 yards, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. That includes 116 yards on just 19 carries when these two teams first met, with 83 of those yards coming where Atlanta is weakest: straight up the middle. The Falcons allow 4.9 yards on the average carry up the middle, worse than every team except the Saints.

Atlanta also had trouble running last week, but that was expected against the league's top run defense, Chicago. Tampa Bay is ranked third in DVOA run defense, but Atlanta's running backs did well against them in the first meeting: 82 yards for Warrick Dunn and 51 for T.J. Duckett.

Despite these runs, Atlanta deviated significantly from its usual offensive patterns in the first matchup. Quarterback Michael Vick threw for 306 yards, 75 more than his second-highest game this year and 39 more than the second-highest game against the Tampa defense. Yet Vick gained just 17 yards on the ground, his lowest total of the season. Sore ribs may limit his mobility again this week.

In the other oddity of that first meeting, the Falcons kept Tampa's star receiver Joey Galloway without a catch on five possible passes. This was one of only two games this season where Galloway did not catch at least four passes, and one of only five games where Galloway did not gain at least 75 yards.

A second shutdown of Galloway is not likely; neither is a second 300-yard game for Michael Vick. Atlanta's best hope is for continued success on the ground and a strong pass rush to sack Tampa quarterback Chris Simms or harass him into throwing interceptions. If Tampa's offensive line looks as bad as it did last week, that won't be difficult.

But Atlanta desperately needs an early turnover, because their run-oriented offense isn't built for comebacks. The Falcons have not won a game all year in which they were losing at some point in the second half. They also have not won a game all year in which their opponent came into the week with a winning record. It's hard to see this being the first.

One Great Game Isn't Enough to Redeem Chargers' Faulty Defense

by Michael David Smith

The San Diego Chargers' defense has been the talk of the NFL this week after roughing up Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts and ending their drive for an unbeaten season. But the Chargers' defensive effort on Sunday was too little, too late, for a team that will likely miss out on the playoffs, in large part because the team has failed to protect a fourth quarter lead four different times this season.

Having an excellent offense prop up a subpar defense is a something of a tradition in San Diego. In the history of pro football, no team has a richer history of great offenses than the Chargers, and yet they have never won a Super Bowl.

The Chargers have had two of the best offensive coaches in NFL history, first with the passing game pioneer and Hall of Famer Sid Gillman in the 1960s and then with Don "Air" Coryell in the 1970s and 1980s. Since its maiden season of 1960, San Diego has led the league in passing yards 10 times, more than any other franchise, including every year from 1978 to 1983. In the 1980s,with Dan Fouts under center, the Chargers' offense led the league in both total yards and first downs every year from 1980 to 1983, a four-year streak that no team has ever equaled.

In 1985 the Chargers set an NFL record with 259 passing first downs, a record that still stands despite the league's continued rules changes to favor the passing game. But just as inevitable has been an under performing defensive unit. Bad defense kept the Chargers from being the best team in football, notably in 1981, when San Diego topped the league in both points scored and yards gained but was undermined by a lousy defense and finished only 10-6.

In addition to Gillman, the Chargers have suited up five Hall of Famers, all of them vital parts of the passing game: Fouts, receivers Charlie Joiner and Lance Alworth, tight end Kellen Winslow, and tackle Ron Mix, one of the best pass-blockers of his era.

Given the history of a great passing game, it's a bit surprising that current coach Marty Schottenheimer, known for his conservative belief in a sound running game, is now leading what might be San Diego's best offense yet. Gillman and Coryell were ahead of their time in emphasizing the passing game. Schottenheimer, by contrast, is a throwback to the old days of run-first football. San Diego's current offense is less flashy than its predecessors, but its best player, LaDainian Tomlinson, is the greatest running back in franchise history.

Tomlinson has 1,323 rushing yards this season and 7,222 for his career. Last year, in only his fourth NFL season, he became the first player in Chargers history to rush for more than 5,000 yards in his career. And while quarterback Drew Brees and tight end Antonio Gates deserve a great deal of credit for a solid passing game, blocking is where San Diego sets itself apart.

Fullback Lorenzo Neal, named to the Pro Bowl this week, is one of the best lead-blockers in the history of the NFL, and the offensive line, led by right guard Mike Goff, is so good that in each of the last two years, Tomlinson's little-known backups (Jesse Chatman last year and Michael Turner this year) have averaged 6.0 yards per carry.

But barring a major upset in the season's final two weeks, the great offense won't get to showcase itself in the playoffs. The Chargers have allowed 237 passing yards per game this season, fifth worst in the league. A week before looking so impressive against Manning, they couldn't lay a finger on Miami's Gus Frerotte, allowing him to complete 14 of 22 passes for 229 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions in a 23-21 loss.

Perhaps most important, San Diego has repeatedly been on the losing end of close games, with their five losses coming by a combined 14 points. Because of that, San Diego will most likely be the best offense watching games from home in January -- and not for the first time in franchise history.

These articles appeared in the Friday edition of the New York Sun.

Posted by: admin on 24 Dec 2005

17 comments, Last at 25 Dec 2005, 2:25pm by Smeghead

Comments

1
by Kaveman (not verified) :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 2:24am

In the 1980s,with Dan Fouts under center, the Chargers’ offense led the league in both total yards and first downs every year from 1980 to 1983, a four-year streak that no team has ever equaled.

Didn't I read a stat somewhere recently, which said that since Shanahan became head coach in 1995, the Broncos have more points, total yards, and first downs than any other team? Unfortunately, I don't remember where I read it. And that doesn't mean that the quoted factoid is wrong, but it makes me wonder... anyone have the numbers?

2
by Reinhard (not verified) :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 2:50am

they could both be true, because the shanahan stat is only from s i n c e he joined the broncos no one has more. but I guess he comes out below SD. Also, it was the streak of 4 years that remains unbroken.

3
by RunningMan (not verified) :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 3:27am

I think that stats is from Tuesday Morning Quarterback. Broncos' record is accumulative, so in some seaons they do great, but they just haven't lead in those stats categories in consecutive years.

4
by bobman (not verified) :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 3:40am

You know, if you take away one play, the Chargers-Colts game was a two-pointer after they had a 16 point lead.

With about 2:30 left in the 4th quarter, Turner was stopped for a 3 yard loss on 1st down, then broke an 83 yarder for a TD. Say they went 3 and out on that drive (odds are pretty good when it's 2nd and 13 against a top-ten D) and gave the ball back to the Colts at about the Indy 35 with two minutes left. It is not unreasonable to say the Colts could have scored one long pass play and a FG to win it. Then we'd have been reading about yet another close SD loss and a D that cannot hold a second half lead. ... despite the pretty good beating they put on the Colts....

5
by Jake Brake (not verified) :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 4:04am

Let's hear some love for Chuck Muncie!

6
by teeberg (not verified) :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 4:45am

Can we put the Panthers' and Cowboys' pass defenses in perspective? Is Carolina's secondary really that good? Is the team's pass rush so threatening? Can someone please point out that Carolina has faced only THREE serious passing teams this season (New England, Green Bay and Arizona -- all early in the season). Their stats only seem impressive until you start looking at the lousy passing teams and woefully underachieving QBs they've faced. Nine of their 14 opponents this season haven't passed for more than 200 yards in a game. Is that because Carolina's defense is so stout? Or is it a combination of their soft schedule and other teams' ghastly quarterback situation (Brooks, Bollinger, Culpepper-having-a-nervous-breakdown, Orton, Losman, the Anti-Passer Mike Vick, and Todd Freakin' Bouman)?

Comparing Carolina's passing defense to that of Dallas is hardly as straightforward as tabulating the DVOA. Eleven of the 'Boys' 14 opponents this season are serious passing teams (Philly twice, Washington twice, Seattle, Oakland, San Diego, Kansas City and Arizona; also San Francisco when they had a decent passer in Tim Rattay as well as the fairly dangerous Giants and Eli Manning twice). What's interesting about Dallas' passing D is that they were able, given the team's weaknesses and HUGE brain farts (see first Washington game) to hold seven teams under 200 yards passing, and only one QB (among such passing luminaries as McNabb, Collins, Brees, Brunell and Hasselbeck) ripped the Cowboys for over 300 yards this season -- Trent Green.

I'm not giving this game to Dallas by any means -- they've been too inconsistent all season to bet on with certainty. But to only discuss these two teams' passing defenses in terms of yards allowed, etc. is to ignore some serious evidence that contradicts the on-paper stats.

7
by Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Person (not verified) :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 5:20am

To save people some time, there is no need to post comments of this nature:

[team] is clearly ranked [too high/too low] because [reason unrelated to DVOA]. [subjective ranking system[ is way better than this. [unrelated team-supporting or -denigrating comment, preferably with poor spelling and/or chat-acceptable spelling]

8
by Englishbob (not verified) :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 8:15am

Hi PDBIP, you're being a bit harsh if comment is aimed at no.6. Some good points are made and it clearly isn't a rant in favour of a favourite team. Otherwise your comments are well made for others. On the Dallas secondary, I may sound mad but I don't think the Redskins really challenged it other than on a handful of long passes to Moss. Gibbs lets Brunell just dunk the ball off to Cooley or Moss and hopes for a break. I don't think I'd describe the Skins as a serious passing team for that reason, they dink with occasional longer throw, there is no real 10yd -20yd passing range going on. I also think the Carolina D Line will destroy Bledsoe unless Parcells runs patterns with a lot more protection than he used at Fed Ex.

9
by admin :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 11:33am

Hi ho. No, good points in 6, but that stuff is already accounted for by DVOA. (It is opponent-adjusted, after all.) I toss a lot of yards per play numbers into these NY Sun previews because they are easier for the average reader to understand. I mix the two. The Cowboys pass D has been much better than expected this year, no doubt. But it has gotten worse over the past six weeks, which was the point. Only one QB has passed for 300 yards on them -- but that was two weeks ago. And more important than total yards is net yards per pass, and it has gone up.

10
by thad (not verified) :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 11:39am

I think part of the problem with the cowboys passing game is that teams don't need to blitz.
As we saw in both the Giants and Redskins games recently, the defensive line for both teams applied really strong pressure and they could sit 7 men back and just wait.
So far this year, Dallas has given up 31 sacks to defensive lineman, third worst in the league.
They have given up only 6 to linebackers, tied for 8th best in the league.
So one can either say, hey the Cowboys are pretty good at picking ul linebackers!... or maybe they are just not being sent to much

11
by BlueStarDraftnik (not verified) :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 11:50am

re: #10. Good point. The Giants were only rushing THREE at the end of that game a few weeks ago and they were still getting pressure. Goodbye playoffs. Hello 16th or 17th draft pick.

12
by thad (not verified) :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 11:51am

Just for comparison's sake this is how many sacks the average team gives up
def line 19.7
linebaskers 8.3
def backs 3.2
the Chargers have given up only 13.5 dacks to the d line and three to lb's
the Bronco's have given up only 11 sacks to the def line and only 3.5 to lb's.
I think everyone would agree that both those teams have a way better o line than Dallas.

13
by thad (not verified) :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 12:27pm

Aaron,
The Cowboys pass defense was actually quite good in 4 of the most recent 6 weeks.
weeks 1-8 5.49 net yads/pass att
weeks 9-12 5.31 net y/pa including holding denver to 5.73, very good
weeks 13-14 8.95...YIKES!
And that is how you give up 63 points in two games.
season to date NFL average is 5.91 net y/pass att.

14
by Michael David Smith :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 1:30pm

Those are interesting stats on sacks given up, Thad. Where did you find them?

15
by Yakuza Rich (not verified) :: Sat, 12/24/2005 - 7:30pm

#10.

Dallas' O-Line has been pretty good from a mental standpoint, but from a talent standpoint they are really subpar with the tackles they have out there.

So, they've been pretty good at picking up LB's, but opponents really don't have to blitz much when they can just generate a pass rush with their front 4.

16
by Mike (not verified) :: Sun, 12/25/2005 - 11:53am

I think there should be some accounting for terrible calls in DVOA as well.

Peppers would have ended up with 2 blocked kicks if Elias had a chance to review the tape, however because the refs called running into the kicker and couldn't see where he and Ken Lucas obviously redirected the ball as it went past both of them they refused to pick up the flag. Play becomes nullifid and Cowboys get a first down, which leads to the game-winning score.

Merry Christmas cow-pokes.

17
by Smeghead (not verified) :: Sun, 12/25/2005 - 2:25pm

Was anyone else interested to see this from Jim Mora after the game?

Atlanta coach Jim Mora considered trying to run the clock out when the Falcons got the ball for the last time with just over two minutes left in overtime. But team officials were unable to determine how a tie would affect the club's chances of making the playoffs.

"We couldn't come up with a solid, solid answer, and I'm not really one to play for ties. ... If someone had said: `If you tie this game and win next week, you're in the playoffs,' play for a tie," Mora said.

(from the AP roundup; click my name for the cite)

It sounds to me like Jim Mora was thinking about the right issue in exactly the wrong way. It was all but certain before games even started yesterday that it would take 10 wins to make the playoffs in the NFC: four teams already had 10+ wins; four more besides the Falcons had a chance to get to 10, including their opponents yesterday, the Bucs. By the time it was deep into overtime, two other 8-win teams, Washington and Dallas, had already won.

Now, of all these potential playoff teams, the only one Atlanta has beaten had to head is Minnesota. They had lost, meanwhile, to Chicago and Carolina and already once before to Tampa Bay. Even had they won (or tied) yesterday, their conference record would have remained the worst of all actual potential playoff teams.

So Atlanta was looking at climbing a mountain to begin with. Taking a tie and capping their maximum wins for the season at 9.5 would have left them depending on losses by up to four different teams next week just to have a chance to win their way in. On the other hand, with a win, while they'd still need help from other teams, they'd need less of it. Their scenario to win the division, in fact, would then only depend on one week 17 game besides their own: New Orleans beating Tampa Bay.

I've got nothing against the idea of playing for the tie under certain circumstances. But Mora's thinking is so backward here -- as if he already had a game in hand on someone chasing him, when in fact they were closer to the situation of a hockey team who pulls their goalie in a tie game late in the season because they need the standings points you get with a win to squeak into the postseason. (these days may have gone the way of the dodo with the new shootout rules, but still.) Mora not only should not have run out the clock, he should have gone for it on 4th and 2 from the Atlanta 24 with just over 1 minute remaining and played aggressively to win on that drive. Punting the ball in that situation, which he did, was tantamount not only to quitting on the game, but on the season ... even before the Bucs hit the game-winning field goal.

Why Are You Kicking????????, indeed.