Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

09 Dec 2006

Game Previews: NO-DAL, DEN-SD

by Aaron Schatz

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (8-4) at DALLAS COWBOYS (8-4)

(Sunday, 8:15pm)

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) – which break down each play of the season and compare it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent – 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.

DENVER BRONCOS (7-5) at SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (10-2)

(Sunday, 4:15pm)

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.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 09 Dec 2006

27 comments, Last at 11 Dec 2006, 6:34am by Rick

Comments

1
by 28 (not verified) :: Sat, 12/09/2006 - 4:05pm

The Cowboys allowed a TD on a 100-yard kick return to Rock Cartwright of the Redskins in Week 2. I don't remember if Vandy was the kicker on that play though.

2
by BigManChili (not verified) :: Sat, 12/09/2006 - 4:06pm

Hm. Merriman's back from suspension, knocked the rust off, and he's pissed?

Welcome to the NFL, Jay Cutler!

3
by admin :: Sat, 12/09/2006 - 4:09pm

He wasn't, Suisham was, which explains how I missed it. Will edit..

4
by David (not verified) :: Sat, 12/09/2006 - 4:26pm

I think, and I could be wrong on this that your evaluation of Tatum is a little dated. I believe that this season he hasn't been a boom or bust type player, but this is working off memory a little bit. He hasn't gotten as many long ones, and I don't think he gets tackled for a loss as much. The other problem I had with the article is that Tatum is much better at pass protection then mike is so against SD there is no way that mike is the better choice.

I don't really have good stats about Tatum's running this at least from the Boom Bust perspective so if you have more could I get a link of something?

5
by Julian (not verified) :: Sat, 12/09/2006 - 4:34pm

As a Bronco fan, the upcoming San Diego game is beginning to feel like a perfect storm. Inexperienced QB, in San Diego, with the potential to be knocked out of the playoff race cause Shanahan finally buckled to the public pressure.

With regards to Reggie Bush, I can recall a number of coaches who didn't think he was even the best running back in the draft, much less the best pick overall (Maroney appeared to the be the consensus pick from a number of coaches), however I always wondered maybe he would be more suited to a Wide Out position. He does remind me of a Steve Smith type physically. I wonder if that is even feasible at this this point in his career? Anyone recall this type of successful position shift?

6
by The Ninjalectual (not verified) :: Sat, 12/09/2006 - 6:21pm

As a fan living in the Denver area, my friends and I would make fun of Broncos fans prematurely calling for Cutler by chanting his name every time Plummer made a GOOD play. I think they're starting to get the joke...

7
by Playit (not verified) :: Sat, 12/09/2006 - 8:21pm

Speaking of dated opinions, what evidence was there that Vanderjagt was bad at kickoffs this season? This was debated at length at the end of the article on Vandy's release between Pat and myself, but to summarize briefly. Vandy was among the top in the league in average starting field position, did not allow a single return, and lead to 4 forced fumbles. Of course this might be coincidence, or it might be that kicking high shorter kickoffs has the same advantage as high shorter punts. When kicking inside of your coverage, you increase the probability of early tackles and forced fumbles. I was marginally confused by the way in which DVOA is calculated for kickoffs, but I believe that the coverage team and kicker are treated seperately. Assuming this is done by yardage of kick, it lumps all short kicks together. This would include shanks that skim the ground to high kicks that leave very little return possible? Not sure that is the best way to measure performance. If a better way to identify kicking types can't be done, then kickoff distance should not be conisdered as a variable for kickoff performance.

I realize that Vandy was not consider good at kickoffs in Indy, but that does not mean that he wasn't good in Dallas this last season. What got him released was entirely his field goal troubles.

8
by Marko (not verified) :: Sat, 12/09/2006 - 8:30pm

Aaron: It's Shaun Suisham, not Scott Suisham.

9
by morganja (not verified) :: Sat, 12/09/2006 - 8:33pm

Just curious since it isn't fully explained in the stats section. Concerning the kickoffs of Vanderjagt, it seems that counting the average kickoff length to the net field position achieved leaves room for a third variable that doesn't seem to be considered. I don't follow canadian kickers and don't know if this is the case with Vanderjagt, but a kicker whose kickoffs are short but have a longer hangtime and land in the corners could yield shorter returns due to the coverage having time and position.
Is it fair to criticise Vandgerjagt's kickoffs without taking this into account?

10
by morganja (not verified) :: Sat, 12/09/2006 - 8:34pm

Re: 7
I see you beat me to it.

11
by Playit (not verified) :: Sat, 12/09/2006 - 8:38pm

Re: 10

People are going to think we are the same person. I proposed a fairly extensive stat project in the last thread on the topic but sadly I don't personally have the time to take it up. Perhaps Aaron and company will look to improve the game charting at some point with a little stop watching on kicks. They'd be the first I'm guessing, and it would answer once and for all how best to measure kickers and punters. I'd also be curious to hear if fumble recoveries are really random on kickoffs. It would seem that short kicks lead to a much higher rate of recovery than deep kicks. If that is true, then it would be another wrong assumption in DVOA for ST.

12
by Brandon (not verified) :: Sat, 12/09/2006 - 9:52pm

Re: 11

Dr. Z actually does this--I remember reading an article not too long ago in which he said so. Perhaps if someone asked nicely he'd be willing to give up his information?

13
by Playit (not verified) :: Sat, 12/09/2006 - 11:06pm

Re: 12

I'd be curious to see some of Dr. Z's work, as he is one of the few reporters I can recall that actually makes some attempt at charting games. Unfortunately, I've always felt that some of his charting is a bit subjective. QB had 10 Bad throws for instance. He also seems to rarely do any number crunching with the data he collects. Maybe he'll hire on an assistant to parse all of the data he has collected over the years and do some interesting articles.

14
by Devin (not verified) :: Sat, 12/09/2006 - 11:16pm

Re #5:
I was thinking the same thing. Bush would make a great wide reciever. But perhaps he could be more a Brian Westbrook type back, used for screen and other short passes.

15
by hector (not verified) :: Sun, 12/10/2006 - 12:51am

8, perhaps Aaron is pining for a return from "Scott 'Missin' Sisson." It's definitely Shaun Suisham, though.

16
by Ben B. (not verified) :: Sun, 12/10/2006 - 3:13am

The San Diego newspapers are getting in on calling Jay Cutler the next Elway (click name for link). I assume this is just a brilliant job of jinxing Cutler for the game.

17
by Tighthead (not verified) :: Sun, 12/10/2006 - 3:39am

Calling Romo a gunslinger is quickly becoming as tired as calling Favre a gunslinger.

18
by IsaiahC (not verified) :: Sun, 12/10/2006 - 3:53am

Re: 17
Perhaps we should give more western nicknames to other QB's, to freshen the trend.

Dead Eye Manning
Fast Finger Grossman
Locked Spurs Bledsoe
One Shot Huard
Possum Belly Carr

19
by Crushinator (not verified) :: Sun, 12/10/2006 - 4:53am

17

Being a gunslinger is the new thing. As long as you're white, youngish, and reckless with the ball, you're a "gunslinger".

If you're a white QB prospect, then you're instantly "the next Brett Favre" or "has a lot of Brett Favre in him"

20
by Bobman (not verified) :: Sun, 12/10/2006 - 6:18am

18

Shouldn't that be Quick Finger Vick? I mean, come on... that joke wrote itself. It was probably a headline a few weeks ago.

21
by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Sun, 12/10/2006 - 10:46am

#19 - I'm not sure that's fair. I'd characterise Cutler and Brady Quinn as being not un-Favre-like in their passing (excellent arm-strength, tendency towards questionable, over-aggressive decisions), but I can't imagine anyone saying the same of Leinart or Rivers, for example.

22
by Lou in Cincy (not verified) :: Sun, 12/10/2006 - 11:03am

I've only seen Reggie Bush play a little this season, but in the Cincy game he had a couple of nifty runs in the third 1/4 (?) where he looked like a Brian Westbrook, Warrick Dunn type player.

The big diff between Bush and Maroney is probably the fact that the Duece is still loose in N.O, whilst Maroney has pretty much taken the starting job in N.E.

With the Saints playing so well, Mcallister prolly has gotten all of the 1st team snaps in practice since the beginning of the year. Bush only gets a few with the #1 offense. So he usually ends up w/ the ball on receptions and some high risk plays that can get hit for losses and make him look much worse than he actually is.

I predict a big year from Reggie once he gets a full camp as the #1.

23
by Sophandros (not verified) :: Sun, 12/10/2006 - 11:06am

Colston's injury is the dreaded high ankle sprain.

So, he may be out with a high ankle. I guess that's slightly better than a strung out ankle.

24
by David C (not verified) :: Sun, 12/10/2006 - 8:30pm

Also of note, the Saints' best linebacker, Scott Fujita, was a Dallas back-up before Payton grabbed him and uh... (Shanle, was it?) when he switched teams. McKenzie is probably the only Saints starter on defense who wouldn't be on the bench if he were a Cowboy.

25
by StanW (not verified) :: Mon, 12/11/2006 - 2:56am

Looks like you need to find another job cause analyzing teams isn't your gig. You have no clue how good the Saints are, you are taking the high road and talking like a man with a paper asshole. Learn to analyze in my opinion. GO SAINTS!!

26
by Peremptor (not verified) :: Mon, 12/11/2006 - 5:23am

Hope we get a Any Given Sunday on the Saints/Cowboys game. I was pleasantly suprised to see NO dominate the game when on paper it seemed that Dallas should have been doing the owning :).

27
by Rick (not verified) :: Mon, 12/11/2006 - 6:34am

Saints over Cowboys wasn't a huge upset. So far the biggest upset of the weekend is (IMHO) Arizona over Seattle.

It's probably too late to say this, but I'd been thinking the recent surge of Cowboy interest was probably a bit too much. This is a huge win for the Saints. With the Bears looking extremely vulnerable, the NFC is wide open.

As for the Chargers, they definintely look like the #1 team in the NFL after their commanding win over Denver.