Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
18 Jan 2008
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.
|Giants on Offense|
|NYG OFF||GB DEF|
|DVOA||-2.5% (19)||-1.3% (15)|
|WEI DVOA||-3.2% (19)||-2.4% (15)|
|PASS||-10.4% (24)||6.0% (18)|
|RUSH||5.6% (7)||-9.7% (6)|
|RED ZONE||3.0% (16)||-16.4% (7)|
If you haven't been reading Football Outsiders this week, you are probably a little shocked to see that the Giants' weighted DVOA stats aren't any better than their regular DVOA stats. Wait -- haven't the Giants been on a tear recently? Yes, they have, but only for three weeks. Before that, the Giants were going through their usual second-half slide. The defense was fine, but the offense went in the tank. New York's offensive DVOA from Week 1-9 was 7.3%, 11th in the league. From Week 10-17, it was -11.6%, 23rd in the league, and that INCLUDES the great game against the Patriots in Week 17.
The comparison I've made over and over is between the 2007 Giants and the 2003 Carolina Panthers. Like the Giants, the 2003 Panthers were a mediocre team during the regular season that suddenly turned into an offensive juggernaut in the playoffs. You can read more about this comparison here.
If the Giants want to upset the Packers, they need to take whatever they've been doing better over the past three weeks and keep doing it. And what they've been doing better over the past three weeks is really, really obvious:
Could it possibly be as simple as "Eli Manning has matured?" Yes, actually, it might be that simple. The Giants have been no better on the ground, or against the run. The pass defense has been slightly worse, which makes sense given the injury situation in the secondary. The difference is the passing game, by leaps and bounds.
When we compare Weeks 17-19 to Weeks 1-16, the Giants' passing DVOA is better on first down, second down, and third down. It is better in the red zone and in all four of the other 20-yard zones of the field. It is better in all four quarters. It is better under center, and better in shotgun. It is better when throwing to wide receivers, tight ends, or running backs. It is better on passes short or deep, and on passes to the left, middle, or right. In almost every single one of these splits, the Giants are now gaining more yards per pass, and they aren't turning the ball over. (The exception is first down, where the Giants are averaging slightly fewer yards per pass, but have a higher DVOA because there aren't any interceptions.)
The Giants passing game has only declined in one way over the past three weeks: Manning is taking more sacks. Adjusted Sack Rate has gone from 5.0 percent to 6.0 percent. Can the Packers take advantage of that? Their pass rush, so strong in 2006, was actually somewhat pedestrian in 2007. Part of the issue is that the Packers do not blitz very often. According to our game charting numbers, only three defenses were less likely to send more than four pass rushers. They might want to try blitzing a little more in this game. During the regular season, there's no doubt Eli Manning struggled more when the defense big-blitzed, averaging a yard per play less than he did otherwise. Big-blitzing Manning was an important part of Minnesota's game plan when they whipped the Giants 41-17 in Week 12, and Washington also used it to beat the Giants in Week 15. (Unfortunately, we can't look at how Manning has done against the blitz for the last three weeks, since we don't have that charting data complete yet.)
Manning has been succeeding by taking what the other team gives him instead of trying to force the ball to certain receivers. He will probably need to do that against the Packers as well. The Packers play primarily man coverage. Al Harris made the Pro Bowl, although his stats in our game charting were way down this year. Charles Woodson's game charting stats were very strong. The Packers ranked 31st in DVOA against "other receivers," so things are set up for Steve Smith to have a big game if Manning is willing to find him.
In earlier previews, I had noted that A.J. Hawk comes out as the best linebacker in pass coverage this year. Make that "one of the best," since with additional data he's fallen behind Lofa Tatupu. Still, Hawk could be a deterrent against passes to Ahmad Bradshaw or Brandon Jacobs. However, Packers opponents did like to throw to the tight end, so we may see a lot of Kevin Boss. 23 percent of passes against Green Bay were to tight ends. Only the Colts and Jets saw more tight end passes from their opponents.
The Giants should also be the beneficiaries of some free yardage courtesy of the flag-happy Packers defense. The Packers' secondary is especially foul-prone -- they led the league in defensive pass interference and illegal contact penalties with 13 each. Green Bay handed the other offense 34 free yards each game because of penalties, more than twice the NFL average and nine more yards per game than the next-highest defense, Arizona.
New York loves to run, and they'll have some success on the ground, but the Packers had pretty good run defense this year. They had some strange Adjusted Line Yards trends, scoring very well against runs up the middle or right end, but very badly against runs left end, left tackle, or right tackle. Also, don't be surprised if the Giants can't stuff it in to the end zone with Jacobs once they get down near the goal line. The Packers ranked third in defensive DVOA against the run in the red zone.
|Packers on Offense|
|GB OFF||NYG DEF|
|DVOA||17.3% (5)||-2.9% (14)|
|WEI DVOA||22.4% (3)||-2.8% (14)|
|PASS||26.1% (5)||1.5% (15)|
|RUSH||3.3% (9)||-8.4% (10)|
|RED ZONE||18.5% (7)||23.5% (27)|
The Giants' defense is based around their pass rush, but they'll have a harder time than usual harassing Brett Favre. The Giants led all defenses in Adjusted Sack Rate, but the Packers led all offenses with the lowest Adjusted Sack Rate.
That strong defensive line also is good at stopping the run. The Giants were third in Adjusted Line Yards. However, you'll also notice they ranked 23rd in "10+ Yards," which means they gave up a good number of long, highlight-reel runs. That's where Ryan Grant comes in. The Packers offense ranked third in "10+ Yards," almost entirely due to Grant. The Packers' average yards per carry by running backs improved from 3.57 in Weeks 1-6 to 4.90 after Week 7, when Grant became a factor. Adjusted Line Yards, however, only improved from 3.58 to 4.12.
Green Bay is very good if the offense can get into a second-and-short situation, third in the league in DVOA. The Giants defense is 27th in these situations. One interesting note is that the average NFL team runs about 60 percent of the time in second-and-short, but the Packers ran only 40 percent of the time.
Somewhat connected to the success on second-and-short is Green Bay's success using play-action. The Packers averaged 9.6 yards per pass with play-action, fourth in the NFL. (The Giants defense was average against play-action.)
The Packers led the league in yards after catch, and those yards were not coming on short passes to tight ends and running backs. If we look only at wide receivers, the Packers lead the league with an average of 5.6 YAC. Tampa Bay (5.3) was the only other offense where wide receivers averaged more than 4.8 YAC. The Giants allowed an average 3.7 YAC on passes to wide receivers, but a lot of extra yards on passes to tight ends and running backs. The Giants ranked 31st in DVOA on passes to tight ends, 28th on passes to running backs. If the Packers want to take advantage of this, they'll need to use more Donald Lee. Lee was by far the better receiver of Green Bay's two tight ends (23.9% DVOA and 76% catch rate, compared to Bubba Franks with -18.1% DVOA and 56% catch rate) but he's seen less action over the last few weeks, because they've kept Franks in for his superior run-blocking. Grant did not have particularly good numbers as a receiver, and that doesn't even count his game-opening fumble against Seattle.
As for the wide receivers, whether or not they can run for all those extra yards may be determined by which Giants cornerbacks are healthy and which ones are not. It looks like Sam Madison and Aaron Ross will play, while Kevin Dockery will not. Now check out the game charting stats for all five cornerbacks (through Week 15) including average YAC allowed:
I have no idea whether this is an issue of talent or scheme, but it seems pretty clear that the aging Madison was giving up a lot more yards after catch than Dockery or Ross during the regular season. (You can't judge much from that sample size for McQuarters or Webster. Both have been playing well in the postseason, but then again, Joey Galloway and Terry Glenn weren't exactly the healthiest guys the last couple weeks.)
All those YAC come from an offense filled with Bill Walsh-influenced quick slants, and the Packers throw more passes in the middle of the field than any other offense. 30 percent of their passes were tagged as "short middle" in the play-by-play (15 yards through the air or less). The Giants had the worst DVOA in the league against passes tagged "short middle." Using the same formula I use for "DVOA against types of receivers," the average team had a DVOA of 8.1% against short middle passes. The Giants had a DVOA of 50.3%.
As noted at the start of this preview, the Giants defense hasn't improved in the past three weeks the way the offense has. The Giants' biggest defensive weaknesses continue to be a problem. For example, the Giants had a poor defense in the red zone this year: 23rd against the pass, 30th against the run. New England, Tampa Bay, and Dallas got past the Giants' 18-yard line eight times. Seven of those drives ended in touchdowns. The only one that didn't was the first Dallas drive of the third quarter last weekend, which ended in a field goal.
Another trend that has not changed: the Giants defense doesn't start the game well. During the regular season, the Giants ranked 29th in defensive DVOA in the first quarter. They gave up a touchdown drive in the first quarter each of the last three games, although the actual touchdowns were the first plays of the second quarter against both New England and Dallas.
|DVOA||-1.0% (20)||2.4% (8)|
|NYG kickoff||-6.0 (26)||-1.6 (20)|
|GB kickoff||3.5 (10)||7.1 (4)|
|NYG punts||3.7 (8)||12.6 (2)|
|GB punts||-4.1 (22)||-4.9 (22)|
|FG/XP||-2.9 (24)||1.1 (16)|
The Packers were slightly above average on special teams, the Giants slightly below. However, each team's strengths match up, as do their weaknesses. The Packers were strong on kickoffs and punt returns, weak on punts and kick returns. The Giants were strong on kickoff returns and punts, weak on punt returns and kickoffs.
It's gonna be cold. We've heard people this week say that Manning doesn't like to play in cold weather, but there really isn't anything in his past stats to indicate a problem, and besides -- even if there was something in his past stats, the 2008 postseason has already defied everything else we know about Eli Manning, so why not that too?
When the Giants beat the Bucs, it made sense to some people, because there were questions about whether Tampa Bay rested its starters too much down the stretch. When the Giants beat the Cowboys, it wasn't the biggest shock, because we knew the Cowboys had been fading for a month. However, if the Giants want to get their third upset, they need to beat a team that is peaking in the playoffs, just like they are. The Packers had the best game out of all eight teams in the divisional round. Except for that wacko loss to Chicago in Week 16, they've been strong throughout the second half of the year. Even if the Giants continue their strong play -- just like the 2003 Carolina Panthers did -- that makes this an even matchup, not one where the Giants should be favored. God forbid if the Giants' passing game goes back to what it was during the regular season, because if that's the case, the superior Green Bay offensive attack is going to blow the Giants out of the water.
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). All numbers are regular season only except for WEIGHTED DVOA, unless noted.
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.
45 comments, Last at 21 Jan 2008, 11:44am by Gerry