17 Dec 2005
by Aaron Schatz
There are nine teams currently in the NFC playoff picture, and seven of them are separated by a single game. Four of these NFC playoff contenders face each other in two games of critical importance on Sunday.
It was the second Monday night of the season, four minutes remained in the game, and the Dallas Cowboys held a commanding 13-0 lead over archrival Washington. As the clock ticked under 4:00, Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell hit Santana Moss with a 39-yard touchdown strike. Sixty-eight ticks of the clock later, Brunell hit Moss in stride on a 70-yard bomb and the Skins took home a shocking 14-13 victory.
Thirteen weeks later, Moss's 1167 receiving yards rank him second in the NFL, but Washington's other wideouts have been dismal: David Patten, now out for the year, averaged just 24 yards per game. His replacement, Taylor Jacobs, has averaged just 17 yards in four starts. Once opponents learned that Moss was Washington's only reliable wide receiver, his output dropped in half: Moss averaged 124 yards per game over the first seven weeks, 61 yards per game over the last seven.
The Redskins should have more success with running back Clinton Portis and tight end Chris Cooley. 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, explained here -- Dallas ranks 22nd in the league against the run, and 26th defending passes to tight ends.
When Dallas gets the ball, the situation is reversed: Dallas has a strong passing game but has struggled to run the ball behind an injury-riddled offensive line. That's good news for the inconsistent Washington run defense, which has been terrible against the league's best running games -- 852 yards given up to the Giants, Chargers, Seahawks, and Broncos -- but has barely allowed three yards per carry in nine other games.
Dallas quarterback Drew Bledsoe should have time to throw the ball -- Washington has just 23 sacks, 27th in the NFL -- and find his favorite target, Terry Glenn, who had 157 yards and a touchdown when these teams first met. It helps that Redskins cornerbacks Walt Harris, Carlos Rogers, and Shawm Springs appear on the injury report, though all three will likely play.
These bitter rivals have had many strange finishes and close games during the 2005 season. Each team has had seven games decided by four points or less and ten games decided by seven points or less. The only safe prediction about this game is that it will be close.
When the Steelers beat the Bears in Pittsburgh last Sunday, 21-9, they were not just the first team in nine weeks to beat Chicago. They were also the first team in nine weeks to make Chicago's defense look mortal.
Suddenly, the Bears were having trouble tackling, allowing huge gains on screen plays. Once Pittsburgh took the lead, running back Jerome Bettis took the ball and bowled over the smaller, speedier Chicago defenders.
Atlanta's offense is built around the running game, which leads the league with 5.3 yards per carry and 24.5% DVOA. Like the Steelers, they feature a running back tandem with a smaller agile back (Warrick Dunn) and a big bruiser (T.J. Duckett). That sounds like a recipe for success after Pittsburgh beat Chicago with a heavy dose of the run, but before that game, Chicago had allowed just 3.6 yards per carry. (The Bears are third in run defense DVOA.) It is more likely that the Bears are the team that stopped the run in the first 12 games, not the team that allowed Pittsburgh to run in the 13th.
Atlanta's running game is not just about running backs, of course; it also features the greatest running quarterback of all time, Michael Vick. But the Bears have allowed given up just 45 rushing yards to quarterbacks all season, less than two yards per carry. Both figures are the lowest in the NFL. According to DVOA, the three most valuable rushing quarterbacks per carry, other than Vick, have been Aaron Brooks, Daunte Culpepper, and Anthony Wright. The Bears held these three players to a combined 20 yards on just six carries.
Vick's ability to run will also be limited by the bruised ribs that caused him to leave Monday's victory over New Orleans in the fourth quarter. And it is worth noting that the two defenses that held Vick to the fewest rushing yards this year were the Buccaneers and Jets. Like the Bears, both are built around strong linebackers.
When Vick passes, he prefers to pass to his tight ends, particularly the strong and agile Alge Crumpler. Compared to Atlanta, only two teams, Washington and Tennessee, have thrown a higher percentage of passes to their tight ends. But DVOA ranks Chicago fourth in the league defending tight ends. While the average tight end reception goes for 10.5 yards, the average tight end reception against Chicago goes for just 8.3 yards. The difference is particularly strong on first down, when less than half of tight end passes against Chicago are completed (compared to a league average of two-thirds).
These strong matchups on defense, of course, do nothing to solve Chicago's real problem -- the terrible play of rookie quarterback Kyle Orton, who averages just 5.2 yards per pass attempt. But Orton may not have to throw much at all. With veteran running back Thomas Jones having a career year, the Bears rank sixth in the league with 4.5 yards per carry. Atlanta allows 4.8 yards per carry, more than any other team except Houston and St. Louis.
Another point in Chicago's favor: the temperature Sunday night is forecast to be in the teens, and the Falcons are used to playing indoors. Since 2000, dome teams are 3-20 when the temperature at kickoff is 35 degrees or less, although one of those three wins came when Vick and the Falcons won at Green Bay in the playoffs three years ago.
The Bears need a win to keep the lead in the race for a first-round bye; if the Falcons lose, they effectively drop out of the playoff race. The Bears won't be able to stop Dunn and Vick completely. But the Falcons may not be able to stop Jones at all.
by Michael David Smith
Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith has built the best defense in football by relying on a simple philosophy: Speed is more important than size. Chicago's four starting defensive linemen -- 302-pound right tackle Ian Scott, 300-pound left tackle Tommie Harris, 260-pound defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, and 262-pound defensive end Alex Brown -- average 281 pounds, making them one of the smallest units in the league, but opposing offensive linemen haven't blocked them very often this season.
At least until Sunday, when the Pittsburgh Steelers' big offensive line (combined weight: 1,583 pounds) dominated the Bears' defense. Pittsburgh finished the day with 190 rushing yards, controlling the ball for more than 37 minutes. Because the Steelers matched up so well with the Bears, it would be tempting to conclude that, at the end of the day, small defensive lines simply can't stop the run. It would also be wrong.
Although some of the best run-stopping tackles in football -- including San Diego's 348-pound Jamal Williams, the Giants' 325-pound Fred Robbins, and Pittsburgh's 325-pound Casey Hampton -- are enormous, an examination of the size of the defensive linemen throughout the league shows that size and ability to stop the run do not go hand in hand.
The basic statistical measurement of how well a defense stops the run is average yards allowed per rushing attempt. (The NFL ranks rushing defenses not by average but by total rushing yards allowed -- a flawed statistic because it rewards good teams unfairly when they race out to early leads and force opponents to pass in order to catch up.) The defensive linemen on the top five teams in yards per rushing attempt weigh an average of 296 pounds, a mere two pounds heavier than the average weight of the defensive linemen on the five teams allowing the most yards per rushing attempt. The Bears rank fifth in the league, allowing 3.51 yards a carry, and their defensive line (small, at least, by NFL standards) weighs in at an average of 281 pounds.
Teams that use three defensive linemen and four linebackers generally have larger linemen than teams that use four defensive linemen and three linebackers, but even when 3-4 teams are separated from 4-3 teams, bigger lines are no better at stopping the run. The San Diego Chargers rank fourth in the league at 3.48 yards allowed per rushing attempt and have a huge 3-4 front of 303-pound end Luis Castillo, 348-pound Williams, and 309-pound end Igor Olshansky. But the Houston Texans are 30th in the league, giving up an average of 4.62 yards per run, even though they employ an even larger defensive line, with ends Gary Walker and Robaire Smith weighing 324 and 328 pounds, respectively, and tackle Seth Payne weighing 315.
The Pittsburgh offensive linemen who got the better of the Bears on Sunday weigh an average of 319 pounds, which puts them at the large end of the scale (NFL average is 310 pounds). The ease with which the Steelers ran against Chicago might hint that large offenses run well against small defenses, but the Steelers' performance two weeks earlier showed they can't always control the ball against small defenses. Against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 12, Steelers back Jerome Bettis had only nine yards on six carries, and the Steelers as a team combined for just 86 yards on the day. Indianapolis has a defensive line even smaller than Chicago's.
Despite the lack of evidence that bigger defensive linemen are more effective against opposing rushing attacks, NFL general managers looking to shore up their run defenses increasingly draft huge defensive tackles. The early buzz indicates that the top defensive tackle prospects for the 2006 draft are Oregon's 345-pound Haloti Ngata, Michigan's 335-pound Gabe Watson, and Texas's 330-pound Rodrique Wright.
Chicago's biggest problem on defense against Pittsburgh was bad luck with injuries (both starting safeties missed the game) and with fumbles (the Bears forced the Steelers to fumble four times, but Pittsburgh recovered all of them). Fans don't want to hear about bad luck, though, and if Chicago loses in the playoffs to another run-first team, some fans will say the Bears need to draft one of those players. Smith shouldn't give in to that pressure. He's built the best defense in the NFL for a reason: He knows that for defensive linemen, bigger isn't necessarily better.
These articles appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
19 comments, Last at 20 Dec 2005, 9:00pm by Rick