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21 Oct 2006
by Aaron Schatz
In the 2006 NFL preseason, only two teams were winless: Pittsburgh and Washington. It was a bit of a surprise since both were considered top Super Bowl contenders, but most observers wrote it off -- after all, preseason doesn't count.
Six weeks into the regular season, however, both teams are disappointments with more losses than wins. Tampa Bay is the only other 2005 playoff team with a losing record in 2006. If the Steelers and Redskins can't head out on the road and win Sunday, they won't be left with much time to turn things around.
The Steelers actually started the process of turning things around last week. Pittsburgh entered its game against Kansas City with a struggling offense. Ben Roethlisberger, one of the top quarterbacks in the league his first two years, had turned into the worst passer east of Oakland.
One 45-7 annihilation of Kansas City later, the Steelers offense looks a lot less troubled. Roethlisberger threw only three incomplete passes all day, and running backs Willie Parker and Najeh Davenport combined for 187 yards and three touchdowns on just 33 carries. In truth, the Pittsburgh offense is not as powerful as it looked last week, but it is also not as impotent as it looked during the first four games of the season.
Even while Pittsburgh fans worried about their offense and their quarterback, they had no reason to be worried about their defense, which has remained one of the league's best throughout the team's poor start. The Steelers have completely shut down three of the league's best running backs in three consecutive weeks, holding Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson, San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, and Kansas City's Larry Johnson all under 50 yards.
That defense presents a significant obstacle for an Atlanta offense based around the running game. 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 the Falcons second in the league in rushing and 31st in passing. It's hard to foresee Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick doing a good job of deciphering Pittsburgh's complicated zone-blitz defenses. He does have one thing in his favor for this game: when he rolls out left to pass or run, he will probably be facing backups Arnold Harrison and Chad Brown instead of Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter, listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury.
Atlanta's defense is the opposite of the offense: very strong against the pass (second in DVOA) but porous against the run (24th). That pass defense is primarily based on a strong pass rush and good coverage of tight ends and running backs, but the Falcons are below-average against number one receivers. Parker and Davenport will slice through the Falcons like butter, Hines Ward will make the highlight reel, and as long as the pass pressure doesn't turn into Roethlisberger turnovers, everybody will walk out of the game at .500.
The subject of running backs slicing through defenses like butter brings us to the matchup of Washington and Indianapolis. This game promises to demonstrate what happens when an irresistible force meets an easily movable object.
Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings rank Washington fourth in rushing offense and Indianapolis tenth. These two successful ground attacks will meet up with two extremely week defensive fronts. Last year's defensive improvement has disintegrated in Indianapolis, and the Colts have given up 5.3 yards per carry to opposing running backs, the worst figure in the league. Washington's run defense has also disappeared in recent weeks, primarily because of injuries. Both starting defensive tackles, Cornelius Griffin and Joe Salave'a, missed last week's game, and mediocre Tennessee running back Travis Henry gashed the Redskins for 178 yards. Griffin and Salave'a are both listed as questionable on this week's injury report, and neither one is expected to play.
(Ed. note: The Washington Times is now reporting that Salave'a may play, but Griffin will not.)
Henry's big day was emblematic of the problem that has plagued Washington since the preseason: depth. The Redskins build their team with big money free agents and treat first-day draft picks as if they were a nuisance. (Before the season, they traded a third-round pick in next year's draft for a running back, T.J. Duckett, who has carried the ball a grand total of five times this season.) The result is a top-heavy lineup with nothing behind it, a Potemkin Super Bowl contender. Nearly everybody on the Washington bench was a late draft pick or undrafted. Starting in place of Griffin and Salave'a, for example, were two rookies, fifth-rounder Anthony Montgomery and sixth-rounder Kedric Golston.
The Redskins aren't just having injury issues in the front four; they're also getting torn apart in the secondary. Starting cornerback Shawn Springs had abdominal surgery, missed the first four games, and finally returned last week. He's still not at full strength, and now the other starting cornerback, Carlos Rogers, is out with a broken thumb. That means that Washington will continue to depend on second-string cornerbacks Kenny Wright and Mike Rumph, and Wright and Rumph are the main reason why Washington ranks 29th in defensive DVOA against the pass. Wright has a hard time keeping up with fast receivers one-on-one, while Rumph would be a better fit at safety because he has a hard time figuring out where the ball is. That's not exactly the secondary you want facing Peyton Manning and one of the greatest offenses in NFL history.
Is there any way the Redskins can keep up with the Indianapolis scoring machine? On the ground, the answer is clearly yes, but in the air there's a question mark. The Washington passing game has been inconsistent all year, in part because it is overly dependent on two passes: the quick hitch to Santana Moss, and the long bomb to Santana Moss. Colts cornerbacks Jason David and Nick Harper will have a lot of trouble covering Moss, but the Redskins don't seem to throw normal 10-20 yard passes to anyone else. Instead, new coordinator Al Saunders is outsmarting himself with players crossing from side to side on plays that don't gain yardage. (If it was possible to run a play with 12 players criss-crossing upfield, Saunders would run it.)
If the offense is clicking on all cylinders, Washington has a chance to win in a big offensive shootout. More likely, the Colts will enjoy a comfortable home win, and the Redskins will fly home wondering how a team filled with highly-paid stars can start the year 2-5.
This article originally appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun. You can also read Mike Tanier's take on Al Saunders at the Football Outsiders FOX blog.
27 comments, Last at 23 Oct 2006, 11:49am by Tim