"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
19 Jan 2007
by Aaron Schatz
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link.
The first half of the 2006 season belonged to the Chicago Bears. The offense was powerful, the defense flawless. Even when the offense had an off night, as it did during the Monday night near-upset by Arizona, the Bears could not be beat. It looked like 2006 was their year.
That the Arizona game was not an off night, however; it was a preview of what was to come. As quarterback Rex Grossman went from inconsistent to just plain awful, the Chicago offense imploded. In December, even the defense began to lapse. The Bears won their first seven games by a combined score of 221-69. In their final nine games, they outscored opponents just 206-186, and last week they needed overtime to beat a subpar Seattle team that backed into the playoffs by virtue of playing in the NFL's weakest division.
The season no longer belongs to the Chicago Bears. Instead, it now seems to belong to the New Orleans Saints. Not just a sentimental favorite, the Saints may have engineered the greatest one-season turnaround in NFL history. For the six weeks, they've clearly been the better team. Now they must brave the freezing temperatures of Soldier Field and attempt to write the next chapter in their amazing story.
Rex Grossman's up-and-down season may be the biggest cause for concern in Chicago, but the defense's recent decline comes in a close second.
Two injuries weakened the Chicago defense. The Bears had already lost strong safety Mike Brown at midseason, but his replacement, Todd Johnson, injured his ankle in Week 12. The following week, defensive tackle Tommie Harris tore a hamstring and was lost for the year.
Harris is a huge loss; Chicago's Cover-2 defensive scheme depends on the front four to generate pass pressure so that seven men can drop into zone coverage. Without Harris to provide pressure, and stuck with a third-string safety, the Chicago pass defense went from spectacular to average. The Bears allowed 4.6 net yards per pass with 21 interceptions in the first 12 games (-42.3% DVOA vs. pass), but 6.0 net yards per pass with only three interceptions in the final four (12.2% DVOA vs. pass).
Johnson returned healthy against the Seahawks, and things did get better. The Bears allowed Matt Hasselbeck 5.0 net yards per pass, more in line with their early-season numbers. But Seattle wasn't exactly one of the best offenses in the league this year. New Orleans is a different story.
Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings rank the Saints as the best passing game in the NFC this season. Quarterback Drew Brees led the league with 4,418 passing yards, throwing 26 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions and 18 sacks.
Brees took few sacks for a variety of reasons. His offensive line was improved, the Saints' running backs are good blockers, and Brees is smart enough to throw the ball away when in danger. Combine that with the absence of Harris, and Brees should have plenty of time to find his favorite target downfield. Even when their defense was the best in the league, the Bears gave up an above-average DVOA to number one receivers.
Although veteran Joe Horn may finally be returning from the groin injury that has kept him out for six weeks (he's listed as questionable), that favorite target will probably be Marques Colston, the seventh-round rookie from Hofstra who emerged as one of the league's best possession receivers. Colston led the league with 29 conversions on third or fourth down, and Brees will find him for plenty of midrange gains between the safeties playing deep and the cornerbacks and linebackers playing short.
The Saints' other receivers may not have as much success. Billy Miller led the Saints in receiving yardage against Philadelphia, but the Bears were the league's best defense against tight ends. Speedy Devery Henderson won't find it easy to get behind a secondary that gave up only 37 passes of 20 or more yards, the lowest total in the NFC.
The Bears are an above-average defense against the run as well, and when the pass defense declined, the run defense did not. Unlike last week, running back Deuce McAllister won't have an easy time gaining yardage consistently. However, the Bears were one of the league's five worst teams when it came to giving up double-digit runs, so we could see some Reggie Bush magic. The Bears ranked third in defending passes to running backs, so that magic is more likely to come on a pitch or draw, not a swing pass. The Bears generally line up their defensive tackles wide in nickel situations, leaving them particularly vulnerable to a big draw play on third down.
On the surface, Grossman's numbers against Seattle last week look good: 21-for-38, 282 yards. But the raw yardage numbers hide his inability to move the chains on third down. He converted only three of 14 pass attempts on third down, with two sacks and two turnovers.
Grossman had a problem converting third downs throughout the second half of the year. He may have better luck than usual against the Saints, who were an average defense against the pass on first and second down, but ranked 25th in DVOA on third down.
The bad news for Grossman is that his biggest weakness, making stupid mistakes under pressure, happens to correspond with the strength of the New Orleans defense: the pass rush, led by defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith.
In fact, over the course of the season, the Saints had a better pass rush than the Bears did. Chicago sacked the quarterback 40 times, New Orleans only 38 -- but the Bears faced over 100 more pass attempts than the Saints did. On a percentage basis, the Saints get to the quarterback more often.
At least, if Grossman forces a throw rather than taking a sack, a turnover is unlikely; the Saints had only 11 interceptions all year. (If they win, this will be the lowest total for a conference champion since the NFL went to a 16-game season.)
And just as the Saints' biggest strength matches Grossman's weakness, so too does their greatest weakness match Grossman's strength: throwing deep, particularly to the speedy Bernard Berrian. The Saints' pass defense got an extremely imbalanced performance from the secondary during the second half of the year. Starter Mike McKenzie and nickel back Jason Craft played very well, but Fred Thomas was consistently burned by speedy receivers like Chad Johnson, Terry Glenn, and Antonio Bryant. Last week, Thomas gave up a 75-yard touchdown to Philadelphia's Donte' Stallworth. Every time the Saints let Berrian get behind Thomas without deep safety help, they are inviting the Bears to score seven points.
The Bears will run the ball plenty, both to help Grossman and to keep Brees and the New Orleans offense off the field. Over the last few weeks, the Bears have gotten consistent ground gains from both veteran Thomas Jones and last year's fourth overall pick, Cedric Benson.
Chicago runs best up the middle, leading the league in adjusted line yards middle/guard, but against the Saints they should try to run behind left tackle John Tait. The Saints' best linebacker, Scott Fujita, plays on the strong side (normally the right), which is a big reason why the Saints were weaker against runs to the offensive left. New Orleans has a problem giving up long runs -- like Brian Westbrook's 62-yard touchdown a week ago -- but Chicago's offense is weak in that area as well, so it isn't likely to be an issue.
As bad as the Saints were against the pass on third down, they were even worse against the run -- but the issue there is third-and-long, not third-and-short. The Saints were the only team in the league to allow a first down on more than half of all runs on third/fourth down with four or more yards to go. But they were also one of only three teams in the league to stop a first down on more than half of all short-yardage situations (third/fourth down or goal line with 1-2 yards to go).
The Saints defense is also at its best in the most important area on the field: the red zone. After all, it's hard to burn the defensive backs deep when there's less than 20 yards behind them.
Special teams is one area where the Bears clearly are superior to the Saints. With rookie return man Devin Hester and kicker Robbie Gould leading the way, Chicago put up the second-highest special teams rating in the ten years for which Football Outsiders has play-by-play breakdown. Hester set an NFL record with six return touchdowns, ranking second in punt return average and fifth in kickoff return average. Gould was excellent on both field goals and kickoffs.
The Saints, however, are not as bad on special teams as their numbers for the season might suggest. Rookie punter Steve Weatherford did a good job when veteran Mitch Berger was lost for the year, but unlike Berger, Weatherford does not also kick off. That left kickoffs to 43-year-old veteran John Carney, who still has accuracy but no power. In Week 12, the Saints finally bit the bullet and cleared an extra roster space for a kickoff specialist, Billy Cundiff, and his average kickoff is more than three yards longer than Carney's.
The Saints will also probably use Reggie Bush on punt returns, which they only did part-time during the season. Bush had 12 returns for at least eight yards, Michael Lewis just five. Of course, Lewis never had a return that went backwards, while Bush lost yardage seven different times.
The main question revolving around the Chicago Bears is no longer, "Which Rex Grossman will show up?" It is now "Which Chicago defense will show up?" Even if Grossman is able to protect the ball against the unimposing Saints defense, the Bears can not win this game unless they can summon a top defensive performance to stop Brees, Colston, Bush, and McAllister.
The Saints have never gone to the Super Bowl. No dome team has ever won a conference championship game outdoors. No 3-13 team has ever made the Super Bowl the following season. There's a good chance that by Sunday night, none of these statements will still be true.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) Red zone DVOA is also listed.
WEI DVOA is WEIGHTED DVOA, which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here). This is the same formula used in this week's FOXSports.com power rankings, and it includes the playoffs. All numbers except for WEIGHTED DVOA are regular season only.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense.
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a third-power polynomial trendline. That's fancy talk for "the curve shifts direction once or twice." Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.
76 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2007, 10:52am by Felton Suthon