Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
07 Oct 2006
by Aaron Schatz
This week's top NFL games are all about returns. Terrell Owens finally returns to Philadelphia after months of media hype. San Diego returns home, hoping to bounce back from a disappointing loss in Baltimore. And Pittsburgh returns from the bye week hoping a week of rest can cure whatever is ailing their star quarterback.
The problem in Philadelphia this week is not the absence of Terrell Owens from the lineup. The problem is the absence of numerous other players from the lineup.
Since Owens and Terry Glenn are the best tandem of starting receivers outside of Indianapolis, so Philadelphia's issues in the secondary are the most pressing. Starting cornerback Lito Sheppard has missed three games with an ankle injury, and his replacement, Roderick Hood, missed last week's contest with a heel injury. Without Sheppard and Hood, the Eagles have been forced to partner remaining starter Sheldon Brown with Joselio Hanson and Dexter Wynn, two inexperienced youngsters who are otherwise special teams players. As a result, the Eagles have given up more yardage to starting wide receivers than any defense in the league, and only Tennessee has allowed starting wideouts to catch a higher percentage of passes.
Sheppard may be back this week, but is that a good thing? Hood was far superior last year, in large part because Sheppard was playing hurt -- just like he will be this Sunday. Last year, according to the FO game charting project, Sheppard allowed 10.4 yards per pass when he was in coverage, the third worst figure among NFL cornerbacks (83 were ranked). Hood ranked number one overall, allowing just 4.9 yards per pass.
The Eagles need a strong pass rush to keep the quarterback from picking apart the weaknesses in the secondary, and they've had one this year, leading the NFC with 16 sacks. But the Dallas offensive line, considered a weakness going into the season, has done an excellent job of protecting the immobile Drew Bledsoe, allowing just three sacks. The line is also blocking well for running back Julius Jones, and Dallas ranks second running the ball according to Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) statistics. The Eagles are just 18th against the run.
That would normally presage a shootout between two powerful offenses, because the Eagles lead the league in offensive DVOA this season. But it's possible Donovan McNabb will have to take the field without his three biggest weapons. Early in the season, receiver Donte' Stallworth looked like the Owens replacement Philadelphia needed, but he caught just one pass last week before recent hamstring issues flared up again. He's listed as doubtful on the injury report. His starting partner, Reggie Brown, is questionable with two separate injuries, to his shoulder and a leg muscle. Starting running back Brian Westbrook missed last week's contest with swelling in his right knee, and is also listed as questionable for this week.
With perfect health, Philadelphia would be favored to win this game, particularly given a home-field advantage with some very emotional fans. But with every one of the Eagles who either misses this game or has to play hurt, the odds change, and the talent loss may be too much to overcome.
For a slightly less analytical look at this game, check out the T.O. Return to Philadelphia Drinking Game over on the FO FOX blog.
Based solely on this year's performance, this game is a mismatch. Our numbers have San Diego as the top team in the AFC and the most balanced team in the NFL. The Chargers are the only team to rank in the DVOA top ten for rush offense, rush defense, pass offense, pass defense, and special teams. Yes, they lost last week, but they lost on the road to a very good Baltimore team, partly because of a fluke aborted field goal. No loss is a good loss, but the game did nothing to indicate that the Chargers are going to decline over the long haul.
The defending champions, on the other hand, are actually below-average through three games. The Steelers aren't having any problems stopping their opponents. DVOA ranks them sixth in overall defense, and they're number one in stopping the run -- a pretty nice strength to have against the Chargers double-barreled running attack of LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner.
The offense, however, has been abysmal, and the reason is not hard to decipher. Two games make for a small sample size to pass judgment on, but Ben Roethlisberger has been one of the league's worst quarterbacks in 2006. He's completed less than half his passes and is already halfway to matching last year's interception total. Only Oakland's Andrew Walter has been less efficient.
Perhaps Roethlisberger has not been affected by his off-season motorcycle accident, but he's clearly been affected by his emergency appendectomy from early September. His passes are inaccurate, his ability to avoid the rush has diminished, and after some hits he actually gets up clutching his stomach. The bye week came at just the right time for the Steelers, who have to hope that a week of rest will return the Roethlisberger who led them to a Super Bowl title.
If Roethlisberger's problems continue, San Diego's defense can concentrate on stopping running back Willie Parker, who has been inconsistent so far. He sliced up Cincinnati for 133 yards on the ground, but a week earlier gained just 20 yards against Jacksonville. San Diego's strong front seven presents a tough test, although Parker's speed, combined with the weakness of the Chargers secondary, increase the probability of a huge highlight run if Parker can get past the front seven at some point.
As for using Parker in the passing game, forget about it. So far this year, the Chargers have allowed a grand total of four receiving yards to running backs.
Last year's meeting of these teams was one of the best games of the year, a back-and-forth battle that ended with the Steelers as two-point victors. If Roethlisberger comes back from the bye week with his pain diminished and his problems solved, we can expect a similar battle. If Roethlisberger comes back and plays as badly as he did in his first two starts of 2006, the Chargers will take home an easy victory, and the Steelers will face an important dilemma: Is backup Charlie Batch is better when healthy than Roethlisberger is when injured?
This article originally appeared in Friday's New York Sun.
43 comments, Last at 09 Oct 2006, 9:47pm by Justin Zeth