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?
09 Dec 2006
by Aaron Schatz
Both New Orleans and Dallas are surprise division leaders, and both have the same record. But the Cowboys are a well-rounded team, and the Saints are not.
Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ratings (DVOA) â€“ which break down each play of the season and compare it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent â€“ rank Dallas seventh in the league or better in pass offense, run offense, pass defense, and run defense.
The Cowboys even improved their one mediocre unit, special teams, by waiving kicker Mike Vanderjagt. Not only was Vanderjagt struggling on field goals, he also was one of the worst kickoff men in the league. The Cowboys made him look better than he really was by allowing no return longer than 35 yards and forcing four fumbles on kickoffs. FO stats have Dallas as a top ten team on net kickoff value, but Vanderjagt was last in the league based on the value of kickoff distance alone.
(Ed. note: Someone pointed out in the comments that the Cowboys did give up a 100-yard touchdown return to Rock Cartwright. I missed that one because Vanderjagt was hurt, and Scott Suisham was kicking off that week.)
The Saints' strengths are almost entirely concentrated in one area: the passing game. DVOA ranks New Orleans fourth in pass offense, but below average in every other area except special teams. The running game has been inconsistent the last few weeks, and rookie Reggie Bush still can't get going on the ground. Even last week, when he had his best day as a professional, most of Bush's most impressive plays came as a receiver.
The Saints will need Bush as a receiver more than a runner anyway, particularly if they are without veteran Joe Horn and/or Rookie of the Year favorite Marques Colston. Horn barely played last week due to a groin injury; Colston has missed two games with a knee injury. Devery Henderson has emerged to help fill the void, but the best Saints receiver could be Bush in the slot. Dallas doesn't have a lot of weaknesses on defense, but covering slot receivers is one of them.
The Dallas offense could not match the defense early in the year, but that all changed when veteran Drew Bledsoe was replaced by second-stringer Tony Romo. Out of nowhere, Romo has emerged as one of the league's best quarterbacks. Drew Brees of the Saints may lead the league in yardage, but Romo is second in DVOA, with only Peyton Manning ahead of him.
Last week, however, was Romo's first mediocre start. He failed to complete two-thirds of his passes for the first time as a starter. He also threw two interceptions, but that understates how many times he threw a poor pass. Romo played loose, trying to make impossible plays and ignoring a few open receivers. He got away with mistakes because the undisciplined Giants defense saw their coverage schemes break down over and over.
Eventually some defense will take advantage of Romo's gunslinger mentality for a turnover-filled win over the Cowboys. That defense will not belong to the New Orleans Saints. The Saints have only one above average linebacker, Scott Fujita, and only one above average defensive back, Mike McKenzie. The other defenders were playing above their heads when the Saints shut down the pass in their first three games; since Week 4, they rank 29th in DVOA for pass defense.
No player exemplifies this drop more than cornerback Fred Thomas. The Saints primarily play man coverage on defense, and early in the year, the unheralded Thomas allowed very few complete passes. But this was just a good run, not a permanent improvement, and in recent weeks Thomas has been repeatedly burned by opposing receivers.
McKenzie can't cover both Terry Glenn and Terrell Owens at the same time, so one of them should be open often. Jason Witten will also have a good day, since the Saints rank 29th in DVOA against tight ends.
The Saints are peaking on offense, but the Cowboys defense should slow down Brees and Bush enough for the Cowboys offense to easily surpass them.
When San Diego traveled to Denver three weeks ago, both teams were tied atop the AFC West at 7-2. Then the Chargers exposed the Denver defense in a 35-27 comeback victory, and since then the Broncos have been in free fall.
All season long, as veteran quarterback Jake Plummer struggled in game after game, Broncos fans turned first-round pick Jay Cutler into the vessel of their hopes and dreams. Last weekend, he finally made his debut against Seattle. Like a mythical hero, Cutler was expected to ride in on his winged steed and bring back the Golden Age of Elway. Instead, he brought back the Bronzen Age of Jake Plummer.
Cutler is the future of the Denver offense, but the problem with the future is that it isn't the present. Against the Seahawks, Cutler looked befuddled all night, completing less than half his passes with two interceptions. He had 143 passing yards, but that includes a 71-yard touchdown which was actually a five-yard pass followed by 66 yards of wide receiver Brandon Marshall making great moves as he ran through Seattle's pathetic attempts at tackles.
It's hard to imagine Cutler deciphering San Diego's complicated 3-4 blitz schemes, which is just one example of this game's general theme: Every match-up that favored the Chargers in the first game still does, and everything that is different this time favors the Chargers as well -- starting with home-field advantage.
San Diego's best defensive player, linebacker Shawne Merriman, will play in this game after missing the first one due to a drug suspension. But Merriman's Denver counterpart, Al Wilson, may not play due to a neck injury suffered against Seattle last week. The Broncos may also have to use punter Paul Ernster to kick field goals after kicker Jason Elam strained a hamstring during an ill-advised fake field goal last week.
Denver will have starting halfback Tatum Bell, injured when these teams first played. But Bell is a boom-and-bust runner who gains most of his yards on a few highlight-quality long runs, and San Diego -- like similar 3-4 defenses in New England, Pittsburgh, and Dallas -- allows very few long gains on the ground. Second-stringer Mike Bell, a more powerful, consistent back, may actually be the better option against the Chargers.
Denver still has some advantages that make an upset conceivable. Champ Bailey is still the best cornerback in football, John Lynch is still a hard-hitting safety, and the linebackers are still strong, especially if Wilson can play. Wide receiver Javon Walker is still having a great year, and the Chargers' secondary is still their Achilles' heel. The offensive line is still good, and Eric Pears has been a reasonable replacement for injured left tackle Matt Lepsis. (Immediately after Pears entered the lineup, Denver had trouble running to the left, but that has improved in recent weeks.)
Nonetheless, the Broncos are for the most part just grasping at straws. The most likely outcome of this game is another San Diego win -- and this time, it will come by more than just one touchdown.
An edited version of this article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
27 comments, Last at 11 Dec 2006, 6:34am by Rick