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25 Nov 2006

Game Previews: NO-ATL, CHI-NE

by Aaron Schatz

For the second straight year, the NFC playoff race features one team miles ahead and a group of competitors battling for spots two through six. Three games ahead of everybody else, Chicago can spend the last six weeks trying to fix its flaws before the postseason arrives, while the 12 teams between 6-4 and 4-6 fight for a chance to expose those flaws come January.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (6-4) at ATLANTA FALCONS (5-5)

(Sunday, 1pm EST)

Nine weeks ago, Atlanta pulled the short end of the NFL stick and had to serve as the sacrificial lamb for the Saints' emotional post-Katrina return to New Orleans. The Saints dominated in that game, but this time the emotional circumstances are far different, and so are these teams.

To be specific, both defenses have fallen apart. According to Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ratings (DVOA) -- which break down each play of the season and compare it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent -- the Saints' defense ranked fourth in the league through three weeks. Since then, it has been the worst in the league. Atlanta's decline began one week later: the Falcons were sixth in defensive DVOA through four severe splits this weeks, but rank 28th since they returned from their Week 5 bye.

Why have these defenses collapsed? New Orleans had a few injuries to deal with, but the best explanation is simply that the Saints were playing way over their heads to start of the season.

For the Falcons, however, the collapse is all about injuries. Defensive end John Abraham and middle linebacker Ed Hartwell have each played just two games this season, although both may finally be ready to play this Sunday. A still-hobbled Abraham won't be able to do much against a Saints offensive line that has given up the fewest number of sacks in the NFL.

Abraham's partner at defensive end, Patrick Kerney, is gone for the season after tearing a pectoral muscle. Up-and-coming young defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and veteran run-stuffing tackle Grady Jackson are both injured and listed as questionable.

In the secondary, starting cornerback Jason Webster is out with a groin injury, nickel back Kevin Mathis is lost for the year with a neck injury, and rookie Jimmy Williams may not play because of an ankle injury. That could leave DeAngelo Hall partnered with Allen Rossum, who is a swell punt and kickoff returner but not a very good cornerback.

The Saints may be without spectacular rookie receiver Marques Colston, who sprained his ankle early in last week's game. But New Orleans has a better backup plan on offense than Atlanta does on defense. Over the last three weeks, subbing first for veteran Joe Horn and then Colston, Devery Henderson has 280 yards and two touchdowns.

Quarterback Drew Brees has put up some spectacular numbers in recent weeks -- 510 yards last week is the sixth-highest total in NFL history -- and running back Deuce McAllister is having a good season. But don't expect much from number two overall pick Reggie Bush. He averages just 2.9 yards per carry, and defending passes to running backs is the one thing the Falcons defense does really well (third in the NFL).

Atlanta's usually excellent running game has sputtered over the last month, and Warrick Dunn is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry since Week 7. So the Falcons' chances once again rest on the shoulders of quarterback Michael Vick, who has frustrated fans all year by mixing strong performances with horrible ones. If Good Vick shows up to shred the New Orleans defense, this game will be an exciting shootout. If Evil Vick shows up, the Saints will sweep the season series.

CHICAGO BEARS (9-1) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (7-3)

(Sunday, 4:15pm EST)

Like Atlanta must deal with the battle between Good Vick and Evil Vick, Chicago must deal with the battle between Good Rex and Evil Rex. The difference, of course, is that Chicago's league-best defense and special teams are usually good enough to overcome Rex Grossman's bad days.

Despite injury woes, New England's defense has improved substantially since the start of the season. In Weeks 1-3, only Tennessee and Houston had worse defenses than New England. Since Week 4, only Chicago and Jacksonville have been better on defense.

Some observers feel that Grossman's gambling, gunslinger style makes him a Brett Favre in training. Given what the Patriots did to the real Brett Favre last Sunday, the Bears should probably be expecting Evil Rex this week. That means the defense has to shut down Tom Brady and the balanced Patriots offense.

The Bears pass defense has some severe splits this year: below average against number one wide receivers and tight ends but the best in the NFC against number two and three receivers as well as passes to running backs. For the most part, that's a good mix against the Patriots, who spread the ball around with no clear number one receiver, and also love to use running backs on swing and screen passes.

Unfortunately for Chicago, all that spreading the ball around has left tight end Ben Watson as New England's leading receiver. When the Patriots do manage to get into the end zone against this defense, Watson will probably be the man holding the ball. The Bears have the best red zone defense in the NFL after ten games, but the Patriots are fourth in red zone offense.

Both of these teams are excellent against the run, although the Bears have problems tackling in the secondary. Chicago ranks eighth in DVOA against the run, but 30th in giving up double-digit runs. Expect a lot of one- and two-yard carries from the Patriots, punctuated by a couple of huge highlight-worthy runs from shifty rookie Laurence Maroney -- probably around left end, where the Patriots running game is strongest and the Bears run defense is (relatively) weakest.

The Patriots need to make sure they get big chunks of yardage on first down, because if you go into second-and-long against the Bears, you are probably also going to third-and-long and then punting. Although Chicago is the league's top defense on second down and third down, the Bears are actually just 23rd on first down. The Patriots offense is strong on first and third down, but strangely impotent on second down -- particularly second-and-10 or more, when they average a league-worst 3.9 yards per play.

If the Bears are behind going into the fourth quarter, a comeback will be nearly impossible. Chicago's offense ranks ninth if you only include the first three quarters, but 30th in the fourth quarter. New England's defense ranks 16th in the first three quarters, but second in the fourth quarter.

This is Chicago's third straight road game, and conventional wisdom says that teams struggle if they have to play three straight on the road. It's not true; there's almost no difference between the third straight road game and any other road game. Over the last dozen years, road teams lost 59 percent of the time, with an average margin of 2.8 points. In a third straight road game, teams lost 59 percent of the time, with an average margin of 4.8 points.

An edited version of this article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 25 Nov 2006

34 comments, Last at 28 Nov 2006, 3:50am by Bearcat

Comments

1
by Adam, VA (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 12:26pm

Is the Bears' offense so terrible in the 4th quarter because they've been sitting on big leads and running a predictable offense to kill the clock?

2
by Zonker (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 12:32pm

I can't help remembering Aaron's prediction in his last live chat that the then undefeated Bears and Colts would both record their first losses to the Pats, because Brady kills Cover-2 defenses. Well, he wasn't so good at differentiating between WRs and DBs in the Indy game. I can't quite tell if he's still predicting a Pats victory here. Is Rodney Harrison still out? That ought to swing it if nothing else.

3
by dbt (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 1:24pm

Evil Grossman seems to be predicated less on overall defensive talent and more on whether or not he's being blitzed.

4
by paytonrules (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 1:49pm

The Bears are bad against TE?

It's been said here by the FO crew on a couple of occasions that Lance Briggs is the best cover linebacker in the league against (wait for it) the TE. Is this a case of the stats not lining up with perception?

5
by beedubyuh (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 2:10pm

Needless to say, I am salivating at the thought of Troy Brown trying to cover Mark Bradley or Rashied Davis.

6
by Lou (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 3:16pm

RE#1
I think you're right. It has to be because they've shut down their offense late in their many blowouts. It seems odd to use that fact against them in predicting how they would perform if down late. If the Bears are ever playing from behind in this game they probably won't come back because of Grossman. Link to the recent Grossman mailbag article.

7
by admin :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 3:21pm

I'm sure some of the regular readers of this site know the answers to the questions being posed here. Reading the description of how DVOA works might help. Also, an error above has been fixed. Many people are surprised to discover that I am a flawed human being with an imperfect memory, rather than a robot. Occasionally, I even makes grammatical errors.

And who says a game preview has to pick a winner?

8
by Englishbob (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 3:41pm

Re 7, No reason you have to pick a team at all, but I know I'd be interested in your view and I'm sure others would too (even if it was only "too close to call").
On the subject of being only human, maybe we can get Robo-punter to start writing articles.

9
by Marko (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 4:44pm

#2: Another thing to consider is that the Bears have been playing less Cover-2 than usual lately. They have become more flexible on defense and have not just played more man coverage lately, but they have actually matched up their corners on certain receivers (physical Tillman on Burress 2 weeks ago, quicker Vasher on Coles last week) rather than strictly playing a certain side of the field (Tillman at LCB, Vasher at RCB) as they did in the past. Such flexibility surely would have helped in last year's playoff meltdown against Carolina, when their stubborn refusal to devote extra attention to Steve Smith (or to at least have the quicker Vasher assigned to him rather than Tillman even if he lined up on the other side of the field) directly led to their loss.

10
by Joe Rowles (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 4:50pm

Great post Aaron keep up the good work.

Wish you would have been right last week with the Denver Chargers one. Can't accurately predict a 17 point meltdown though

11
by Scott de B. (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 5:38pm

Is the Bears’ offense so terrible in the 4th quarter because they’ve been sitting on big leads and running a predictable offense to kill the clock?

DVOA compares like to like, so the Bears are being compared to other teams sitting on big leads and running out the clock. Apparently, they are bad at doing so. What this means if they have to come back I don't know.

12
by Andrew R (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 6:09pm

"Regular readers know what I'm talking about."As an occasional reader of this website I feel encouraged to return.

13
by Crushinator (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 7:20pm

11

VOA stands for "Value over Average". I'm about 90% sure It's not ranking the Bears 4th Quarter O vs other similiar teams O - it's ranking them compared to all teams in the 4th quarter.

Which would explain why their fourth quarter O is so bad, they've had several games this year where they've started subbing in their second string or had dominated so thoroughly the first half they completely stopped trying towards the end.

This had been an issue before in keeping DVOA balanced - some teams will get up and just defend a lead, other teams will never let up and just keep scoring. Which is why it's very hard what to do about them.

I remember last years example with the Niners. The Redskins were demolishing the Niners, but they weren't trying to. They had their 2nd and 3rd string RBs in and were running on every play, they were just still destroying the Niners. What do you do in these scenarios? Punish other teams for letting up on the Niners? Punish the Redskins for trying to be sportsmanlike and still shredding them?

14
by Yaguar (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 7:21pm

On the Bears 4th quarter offense:

I think it's bad for two reasons. First, they can't run out the clock as well as some other teams do because their running game struggles.

Second, Evil Rex tends to get worse and worse as the game goes on. In the Arizona game, for example, he was 2/12 for 23 yards and 2 interceptions in the fourth quarter. When he's playing badly, or when he's playing from behind, he freaks out and gets even worse.

15
by Yaguar (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 7:25pm

13: The Bears are compared to other teams running out the clock. Here's an excerpt from the explanation of DVOA:

Every single play run in the NFL gets a "success value" based on this system, and then that number gets compared to the average success values of plays in similar situations for all players, adjusted for a number of variables. These include down and distance, field location, time remaining in game, and current scoring lead or deficit.

16
by Andrew R (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 8:07pm

Even if the Bears offense is mostly compared to what is expected from a team with a lead in the fourth quarter that does not mean a lot if they enter the fourth quarter trailing. Most of what the Bears fourth quarter DVOA is telling us is that they are bad at running out the clock compared to other teams in the same situation. Since they rarely trail in the fourth quarter (other than Evil Rex v. Arizona) we don't know what the Bears offense would be like down 7 in the fourth. Also do we know which of these splits are predictive and which aren't?

17
by mactbone (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 9:39pm

Re 4:
First, the FO staff isn't a hive mind. Second, I distinctly remember MDS being the one who said Briggs was the best cover linebacker without any qualifications. Third, the Bears might not put Briggs on TEs all the time or teams run their TEs aways from him. So, the stats and our perceptions can be accurate, we're just using the wrong tools.

18
by Marko (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 9:42pm

I have to laugh at the comments that the Bears are bad at running out the clock. Here are some of their scores from earlier this year: 26-0, 34-7, 37-6, 40-7, 41-10. The Bears obviously did just fine in running out the clock in those games. The main purpose in those games was simply to keep the clock running and not turn the ball over. In all of those games, either the entire second half or the vast majority of the second half consisted of garbage time.

An example of a team that is bad at running out the clock is Arizona. In back to back weeks, the Cardinals lost games in which they led by at least 10 points entering the final quarter (against the Chiefs and the Bears). In the game against the Bears, the Cardinals led by 20 points with 10 seconds left in the third quarter. The Cardinals blew the game by having two fumbles returned for touchdowns and giving up an 83 yard punt return for the game-winning touchdown.

As for the Bears, they have only had three games in which they led going into the fourth quarter with the game still in doubt. In the game against Minnesota, the Bears led 9-6, but Rex Grossman threw a pick six on the first play of the fourth quarter, putting the Bears behind. The Bears rallied to win 19-16 in a game in which the offense was inconsistent all game. The Bears' only touchdown came on their last drive of the game (not counting game-ending kneel downs).

The other two games were the last two games (against the Giants and the Jets). The Bears did an excellent job of running out the clock in both games. Against the Giants, the Bears led 24-20 going into the fourth quarter. Early in the fourth quarter, Devin Hester had his long TD return of a missed field goal, making it 31-20. The Bears intercepted a pass on the Giants' next possession and went on a 5 play, 46 yard touchdown drive, making it 38-20 with a little more than 8 minutes to go. After a punt by the Giants, the Bears took over with 6:51 left and ran out the rest of the clock with a 12 play drive (the last 3 of which were kneel downs). All of the plays were runs, and the Bears converted 3 third downs on the drive. That was an outstanding job running out the clock.

Against the Jets, the Bears led 3-0 entering the fourth quarter. (Because it was such a defensive struggle, and because the Jets seemed incapable of making any big plays on offense, one writer said that the field goal lead felt like 2 touchdowns.) On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Bears scored on a 57 pass to Mark Bradley (with 50 of the yards coming after the catch), making the score 10-0. The Bears had the ball twice more in the fourth quarter (not counting a last possession kneel down). On the first, the Bears held the ball for 7 plays and took nearly 4 minutes off the clock. On the second, the Bears picked up 3 first downs on an 11 play drive that started with 6:11 to play and ended with 1:43 to play. Again, an outstanding job running out the clock.

Whatever weakness the Bears have displayed in the fourth quarter on offense, it simply is not an inability to run out the clock.

19
by BD (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 9:50pm

I don't think I like the whole Good Vick/Evil Vick or Good Rex/Evil Rex thing. To me, Evil implies some malevolence. Rather, in both cases, it seems more like grand suckitude that sometimes surfaces. What about Good Rex/ Mutant Rex? Or Robo Rex/ Rusty Rex? Competent Vick/ Suckitent Vick? Power Rex vs. the "Rex of Doom"?

20
by Mike R (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 10:34pm

I prefer Turnoverasaurus Rex.

21
by mm (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 10:45pm

Reggie Bush's running seems to have improved in the last few games. He seems to be following blockers more and not continuously taking each play further and further outside.

Not that the Saints have been running much, but he appearss to have absorbed some of McCallister's style of running. Does his success % over the past few weeks indicate a noteable improvement?

22
by Scott de B. (not verified) :: Sat, 11/25/2006 - 11:18pm

Whatever weakness the Bears have displayed in the fourth quarter on offense, it simply is not an inability to run out the clock.

Being worse than average at running out the clock doesn't equate to an inability to do so.

23
by ABW (not verified) :: Sun, 11/26/2006 - 3:47am

Re: 18

Looking at the drive charts from those blowout games, the lopsided scores in those games seem to be more a result of the incompetence of the offenses they were facing rather than particularly good running on the part of the Bears. In the 4th quarter of the games vs. GB, DET, SEA, BUF, and SF, the Bears had 17 drives, of which 3 were entirely kneel downs. There are 4 3 and outs out of the other 14 drives, and only 2 are more than 6 plays long. There are a lot of 5 or 6 play drives that burn 2 or 3 minutes. They had a real nice 14 play drive in the Buffalo game, but they also fumbled it away on the first play of another drive. They had a 4:50 drive against SF, but they ended up punting it at the 2 minute warning. It obviously didn't hurt them since they were up 31 points and SF ended up punting it back, but the fact that it was totally garbage time doesn't change the fact that they could have run it better there - 2 runs for no gain, 1 for 2 yards, and 1 for 10, which looks OK on the stat sheet but would be rated pretty poorly by DVOA.

The Bears have run the ball late well sometimes, and that's mostly come in the last two games, so it seems like maybe they have gotten over whatever issues they were having with it, but I think it's fair to say the Bears have had some trouble running out the clock.

24
by Smartmonies (not verified) :: Sun, 11/26/2006 - 4:47am

Evil Grossman? How about Evli Running game that has averaged as low as 3.1 yards per rush to 3.5 for the entire year. Grossman is all the Chicago offense has. If the guy doesn't take risks, they don't score. They can't run the football.

25
by Sophandros (not verified) :: Sun, 11/26/2006 - 1:07pm

I'm curious to see the DVOA trend of the Saints defense before and after Roman Harper's injury for the Saints. Just from watching the games, it seems that his absence (or the presence of Omar Stoudmire...) has drastically changed the playcalling and the level of confidence with which the Saints have played defense over the last several weeks. Just a pet theory of mine.

26
by paytonrules (not verified) :: Sun, 11/26/2006 - 1:24pm

The Bears are mediocre at running the football - ranking 18th in DVOA - not bad.

KC and Minnesota with Chester "Gets better as the game goes on" Taylor both rank behind them.

27
by Marko (not verified) :: Sun, 11/26/2006 - 1:46pm

"Looking at the drive charts from those blowout games, the lopsided scores in those games seem to be more a result of the incompetence of the offenses they were facing rather than particularly good running on the part of the Bears."

I didn't say anything to the contrary. I wasn't talking about how those scores became lopsided. I was merely responding to a laughable assertion that the Bears were not good at running out the clock in the fourth quarter. Look at post #11.

"They had a real nice 14 play drive in the Buffalo game, but they also fumbled it away on the first play of another drive. They had a 4:50 drive against SF, but they ended up punting it at the 2 minute warning. It obviously didn’t hurt them since they were up 31 points and SF ended up punting it back, but the fact that it was totally garbage time doesn’t change the fact that they could have run it better there - 2 runs for no gain, 1 for 2 yards, and 1 for 10, which looks OK on the stat sheet but would be rated pretty poorly by DVOA."

14 play drive = succesfully running out the clock. 4:50 drive = successfully running out the clock. As for the fumble against Buffalo, it was a botched handoff from their backup QB to their backup running back while leading 40-0 with about 2 or 3 minutes to go. Are you really going to cite that as evidence that they are below average at running out the clock?

In any event, the drives that you cite were totally garbage time. Statistics from those drives are not very meaningful, since getting yards was pretty much irrelevant. Unlikely, too, considering that they were running simple running plays, had emptied the bench and and were facing 10 and 11 man fronts knowing that they were going to run the ball up the middle on every play.

My point was that the Bears rarely have been in a position this year where their ability to run out the clock in the fourth quarter was meaningful. The only two times where the Bears had the ball and a not insurmountable lead in the fourth quarter for more than one play were the last two games in New York. As I stated above, the Bears did an excellent job running out the clock in those two games.

28
by jdb (not verified) :: Sun, 11/26/2006 - 2:37pm

I have a question about DVOA for the more knowledgeable. so, KC doesn't rank all that high in DVOA for running (23rd), right? Yet they're offense, with a seeming negligable passing attack, ranks 13th. This suggests that they actually pass better than they run.
I know Damon Huard was hot for a while earlier in the season, but this still doesn't make any sense to me. I mean, LJ carries the ball like a bazillion times in every game and is averaging about 4 yards a carry and it was pointed out in a recent FO article that he also has a very high success rate of 4-5 yards on many carries. Maybe the beginning of the season is really skewing this, but it seems like with LJ rushing the Chiefs don't really have much of an offense, thus making him one of the most valuable players to his team in the league. Why doesn't the DVOA reflect that??? sorry to be off topic, but my interest was piqued by comment #26 about the Bears serviceable but pedestrian rushing attack being ahead of KC's.

29
by admin :: Sun, 11/26/2006 - 2:45pm

Re: 28, that is off-topic but I happened to just see it as I was checking for comment spam. Chiefs running game was last in the league Weeks 1-6, fifth in the league Weeks 7-11. I'll discuss more in Quick Reads or DVOA comments this week.

Also, on the subject of midseason turnarounds: Saints defense 15th with Roman Harper, 29th without. I agree, he looked like a draft find and was quite important.

30
by justanothersteve (not verified) :: Sun, 11/26/2006 - 3:01pm

#19 - T. Rex vs Barney Rex

31
by jake (not verified) :: Sun, 11/26/2006 - 3:11pm

DeAngelo Hall just tried to end Devrey Henderson's season with a horse tackle 8 yards deep in the end zone. A horse tackle so blatant, they actually called it. If I were Henderson, I would look out for him the whole game. Steve Smith should watch out when they play the Falcons, too.

32
by RCH (not verified) :: Sun, 11/26/2006 - 10:26pm

Aaron, I also did a bit of research regarding 3 consecutive road games but only went back a few years. What I'm most interested in is whether a team that wins the first two has enough juice left to win the 3rd. Any insight on that question? (My hypothesis is that there is nothing magic about the 3rd game unless the team has won the first two...in which case they start humming 2 out of 3 ain't bad.)

33
by RichConley (not verified) :: Sun, 11/26/2006 - 10:39pm

31

I saw that....it was awful

34
by Bearcat (not verified) :: Tue, 11/28/2006 - 3:50am

BEARS GOT ROBBED!!! WE WILL PREVAIL IN SB 41

DA BEARS BABY, DA BEARS

WE RULE