The Seahawks' ability to cover New England's once-in-a-generation tight end will go a long way in determining who wins Super Bowl XLIX.
12 Nov 2005
By Aaron Schatz
NFL fans love to watch two teams with opposing strengths, but opposing weaknesses can be just as interesting. This week, the defensively challenged Patriots visit the offensively challenged Dolphins, while the Packers, who keep losing close games, visit the Falcons, who keep winning them.
(Sunday, 1 p.m.)
Despite being dismantled by Indianapolis on national TV, despite the lack of a winning record, the Patriots still sit atop the AFC East. And there's good reason to believe their fortunes are about to change.
The combined record of New England's first eight opponents is 43-22. The combined record of their remaining opponents is 25-40. They still have five division games to put space between themselves and their rivals, and they have just two games against teams with winning records: Kansas City and the quickly fading Tampa Bay Bucs.
While the Patriots' defense has collapsed this year, quarterback Tom Brady is as strong as ever. And while Miami's defense is strong, quarterbacks have consistently beaten them through the air. Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average system (DVOA) - which breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent - ranks the Dolphins third against the run, but 20th against the pass. Last week, Miami let Atlanta's Michael Vick put up his only strong passing performance of the year. Historically, Brady has had more problems against Miami than any other team, but the Dolphins secondary is very different now. Cornerback Sam Madison is the only remaining starter from last year.
But while New England's offensive strength matches its opponent's weakness, Miami's offensive strength does not. Veteran quarterback Gus Frerotte makes a lot of mistakes, and the Dolphins rank just 26th in pass offense. Rookie running back Ronnie Brown, however, has been very good over the past few weeks, and Ricky Williams is having some success as well. So the Dolphins will want to run the ball - which is fine with the Patriots, who want their defensive backs to play as little a role as possible. The Patriots rank 19th against the run and a horrific 30th against the pass.
This game marks the first meeting of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick with his longtime protege Nick Saban, which should make for a fascinating chess match. But when it comes to talent, New England still has the edge, and Brady will have a much easier time picking apart Miami's mediocre secondary than will Frerotte with the Pats' subpar secondary.
(Sunday, 4:15 p.m.)
On paper, this looks like a complete snoozer, with a top Super Bowl contender hosting a team that has given up on the season. But the DVOA rankings have Atlanta 18th and Green Bay 21st. How can that be?
With Atlanta, the biggest issue is strength of schedule. The Falcons have only played one team with a winning record (Seattle) and lost. They also play every game close - four of their wins have come by a touchdown or less, as have both of their losses. While all the wins count the same in the standings, they don't when it comes to judging future performance.
Green Bay, meanwhile, is 1-7 despite outscoring their opponents 168-159. Of course, this is no longer true when you remove their only win, a cathartic 52-3 demolition of New Orleans. But the Packers have lost their other seven games by an average of 5.7 points, and in the last two weeks they've hung close with two of the AFC's best teams, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
The oddity is that Atlanta's close wins mirror Green Bay's close losses. The Falcons seem unable to put teams away, but their opponents keep falling short on their final drives. Eight yards from a tying touchdown, Miami threw an interception; 29 yards from a tying score, Buffalo failed on fourth-and-1. Philadelphia was driving in the last two minutes, but the Atlanta defense forced four incomplete passes for the win.
Green Bay, on the other hand, keeps coming back late and then stalling out. In Week 3, Brett Favre threw an interception while driving for a game-winning field goal against Tampa Bay. The week, the Packers were losing to Carolina 32-13 in the fourth quarter, scored two touchdowns, got the ball back with two minutes left, and couldn't get a first down. A month later, they scored against Cincinnati to make it 21-14 with five minutes left, had the ball at midfield with a minute left, and couldn't score again. And so on.
The problem is that the Packers are the league's worst offense in late and close situations: second half, game within a touchdown. Favre averages 4.8 yards per pass in these situations, with an interception once every nine passes. The rest of the time, he averages 7.3 yards per pass and throws an interception once every 46 passes.
Enough about the second half - what about the first? No team runs more or better than Atlanta. When the Falcons hand the ball off, they almost always run Warrick Dunn to the right; when left-handed quarterback Michael Vick takes off, he's almost always running to the left. The Packers allow fewer yards than any other defense on runs to the right, but aren't very good against runs to the left. That means a heavy dose of those mighty Vick legs.
Atlanta has only two good receivers, tight end Alge Crumpler and wideout Brian Finneran. Green Bay's defense, however, has a dramatic split: first in the league against no.1 receivers - primarily covered by Al Harris - but near the bottom of the league in covering anyone else. So look for the Pack to shut down Finneran while Crumpler catches pass after pass and the other Atlanta wideouts finally get a chance to be useful.
On the ground, Atlanta has a terrible run defense, but Green Bay won't challenge it: They rank 31st on the ground and will start running back Samkon Gado, an undrafted rookie who was on the practice squad two weeks ago.
The storyline here seems pretty clear: Atlanta will jump out to a lead, allow Favre to pass until Green Bay makes the game close, then escape with a win. But one of these days, the Packers are going to keep it going instead of folding in the fourth quarter. If that day is Sunday, the unlikely upset will become a reality.
By Michael David Smith
Halfway through the 2005 season, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith leads the NFL with 55 catches, 903 yards, and nine touchdowns. No player has led the league in all three categories since Sterling Sharpe in 1992, and some have suggested that Smith should become the first receiver to win the league's MVP award.
In a copycat league like the NFL, every team's talent scouts should scour college film hoping to find another Steve Smith. But if another does come along, he'll most likely be overlooked. That's because when evaluating receivers, scouts focus too much on a receiver's height, and at 5-foot-9, Smith is half a foot shorter than what most scouts consider the ideal wide receiver.
Smith entered the league in 2001 after a productive career at Utah, where he averaged more than 20 yards a catch and was one of college football's best punt returners. He hoped to follow in the footsteps of fellow Utah alum Kevin Dyson, who, like Smith, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds and earned a reputation at Utah for making big plays. The 6-foot-2-inch Dyson was the first receiver - and the 16th player overall - selected in 1998. But three years later, every team passed on the shorter Smith before Carolina took him in the middle of the third round.
No receiver as short as Smith has gone in the first round of the draft this decade, and the average height of first-round receivers has been 6-foot-2. The first receiver taken in 2001, Michigan's David Terrell, was taken with the eighth overall pick - 66 spots ahead of Smith - by the Chicago Bears. Terrell had one thing Smith will never have: A 6-foot-3-inch frame. Those six inches didn't lead to NFL success, though. Terrell was released by Chicago after four disappointing seasons, cut by New England in training camp this fall, and has yet to see any action with the Broncos this season.
Scouts crave tall receivers for their ability to reach over opposing defensive backs for high passes in traffic, but a more important skill is breaking free of defenders, and in that, many short receivers excel. Smith's greatest asset is his ability to elude tacklers once he gets the ball, as his league-leading 474 yards after the catch this season would attest. Smith also has great hands and is agile enough to run crisp, precise routes. Even though the opposition's best cornerback almost always covers him, Smith has been the target of 78 passes this season, more than twice as many as any of his fellow Panther receivers.
Smith is far from the only undersized receiver making a big impact in the NFL. At 5-foot-10, Washington's Santana Moss is second in the NFL with 856 receiving yards and deserves much of the credit for the Redskins' offensive resurgence. Baltimore's 5-foot-10-inch Derrick Mason is the lone bright spot in the Ravens' offense. At 5-foot-11, Joey Galloway has 44 catches for 731 yards to lead the otherwise inept Tampa Bay offense. And New England's 5-foot-9-inch Deion Branch is the primary target in the passing attack keeping the Patriots afloat while the rest of the team struggles.
Perhaps more than any other player, Smith is well-suited to exploit the league's decision last year to be more strict with its illegal contact rules. In the past, officials gave defensive backs more leeway in bumping receivers as they began to run their routes, so smaller receivers had a harder time breaking into the open. Now receivers have more protection, which makes quickness more important than power. Smith broke his leg in the first game last year and missed the rest of the season, so he didn't get a chance to make use of the change. This year he's taking full advantage, and opposing defenses are paying the price.
NFL scouts spend hours scrutinizing game film before deciding which college players can contribute to their teams, but they sometimes allow scouting combine numbers like height or weight to take precedence over on-field production. In Smith's case, scouts decided that his height mattered more than what they saw on film. He makes them regret it every Sunday.
These articles appeared in Friday's New York Sun.