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.
11 Jan 2008
by Aaron Schatz, with some data mining help from Doug Farrar
One game features a kicker in hot pants. The other game features a girlfriend in hot pants. Ladies and gentlemen... the NFC final four.
For those who may be visiting this site for the first time to read this preview, we explain our stats at the bottom of the page, or click this link. Each preview also includes a link to the open discussion thread for that game.
Remember that any stats from game charting are incomplete and fairly subjective. Also, the trendlines in the week-to-week charts may be influenced by the wacky "sitting our starters" Week 17 games.
Seattle and Green Bay are two teams which know each other very well and share a number of similarities. Both teams run Bill Walsh-influenced offenses which depend upon the quarterbacks to find the open receiver when a defensive is blitzing, and depend upon the receivers to gain yards after the catch. (Green Bay led the league with 5.8 average yards after catch, while Seattle had a less impressive but still above-average 4.8.) Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren won a Super Bowl in Green Bay, and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck began his career as Brett Favre's backup.
There are also some similarities in the running game. Both teams had a terrible time running the ball over the first half of the year. Green Bay improved its running game by handing the starting job to undrafted Ryan Grant, while Seattle finally realized that former MVP Shaun Alexander is a shell of his former self and gave more carries to backup Maurice Morris.
How much did Ryan Grant's ascent to the starting role help the Packers running game? Green Bay ranked 15th in rushing DVOA over the first half of the season, and fourth in the second half. Unfortunately for Grant, Seattle's run defense made the exact same jump: 15th in the first eight games, fourth in the last eight. (The Seahawks running game on offense improved as well, from 31st to 12th.)
Seattle's run defense ended the year fourth in Adjusted Line Yards and fifth when it came to stuffing runners at the line of scrimmage. Leroy Hill led all NFC linebackers with a Stop Rate of 85 percent on running plays and made his average run tackle 2.9 yards from the line of scrimmage. Lofa Tatupu had a slightly lower Stop Rate (73 percent), but made his average run tackle 2.2 yards from the line of scrimmage, the lowest figure for any starting middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense.
However, Seattle did give up some serious yardage if running backs could get past the front seven, and Ryan Grant has a habit of making big plays. Compared to Seattle, only two defenses gave up a higher percentage of their rushing yardage beyond 10 yards. And compared to Green Bay, only two offenses gained a higher percentage of their rushing yardage beyond 10 yards.
Both defenses were also stronger against the run than against the pass in 2007, but unlike the Seattle run defense, the Green Bay run defense got worse in the second half of the season, not better. Green Bay's run defense was fifth in DVOA through Week 9, but 19th in Weeks 10-17. However, even with the improvement in Seattle's running game and the decline from Green Bay's run defense, third-and-short isn't necessarily a given for the Seahawks. Seattle's offensive DVOA ranks 27th third-and-short situations (one to three yards to go). Green Bay's defense ranks third in the same situation.
The biggest difference between these two teams comes in pass defense. The Seahawks play primarily in a Cover-2 zone, which will limit the yards after catch that are so important to the Green Bay offense. In front of that zone is an excellent pass rush (seventh in Adjusted Sack Rate), which was the key to Seattle's wild card victory over Washington. However, it will be harder to harass Brett Favre; Green Bay's offense finished first in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate.
One interesting note regarding the Packers against the Seahawks' Cover-2: Green Bay threw 34 percent of passes to the middle of the field, the highest percentage of any offense. However, Seattle opponents threw only 17 percent of passes to the middle of the field, the lowest percentage against any defense. You aren't going to be crossing and rubbing guys off against each other when you play against Seattle. (Note: That thought sounded dirtier than it really is.)
Unlike the Seahawks, the Packers' defense plays primarily man coverage, with an average pass rush from the front four. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 55 percent of passes against Green Bay, tied for the lowest percentage in the NFL -- but when they did complete passes, receivers averaged 5.7 yards after catch, the highest figure in the NFL.
As I've noted in previous articles, one of the surprising results of the early game charting is that Charles Woodson comes out much better than Al Harris this year. Based on the incomplete data (through Week 14), Woodson has the best Success Rate of any cornerback with at least 40 pass targets, 69 percent. However, he gave up 7.1 yards per pass, which is a little above-average -- note what I just said about the Packers defense and YAC -- and of course he has a turf toe issue that could slow him down and give Seattle an opening to even bigger plays when Woodson's man gets open.
Our former PFP cover boy Harris has a Success Rate of just 44 percent, a shocking drop from his performance in 2005 and 2006, and he gave up 9.6 yards per pass, the fourth-highest average among all cornerbacks with at least 40 pass targets, behind Jason David, Stanley Wilson, and Drayton Florence.
Green Bay has trouble with multi-receiver sets, ranking 31st in DVOA against "other receivers." To give two examples, Drew Carter and Drew Bennett each had his best game of the season against the Packers. Seattle was one of five teams that threw at least one-quarter of their passes to "other receivers," and if D.J. Hackett and Deion Branch are healthy, the Seahawks will be going three-wide and four-wide on a lot of downs. A.J. Hawk has the best game charting pass coverage stats of any linebacker in the league this year, but that doesn't help much against a Seattle team that doesn't throw as much to its tight ends and running backs.
If Seattle upsets Green Bay, penalties will probably play a large role. The Seahawks had fewer penalties than any other team in the league this year. The Packers ranked fourth in penalties, and led the league in defensive penalties by a large margin. The Packers' secondary is especially foul-prone -- they led the league in defensive pass interference and illegal contact penalties with 13 each. The three most penalized defensive players in the league were Charles Woodson, Al Harris, and Miami defensive end Jason Taylor. Atari Bigby plays as if he thinks the object of the game is to collect the most yellow flags. 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.
The biggest issue on special teams is that both Seattle and Green Bay ranked in the top five for value on punt returns, while Ryan Plackemeier and Jon Ryan were two of the three worst punters in the NFL this year. (The other was Matt Barr of Arizona.) However, as Seahawks pointed out when I first mentioned this in the ESPN Numbers Crunching article, this isn't necessarily all Plackemeier's fault, because Seattle's punt and field goal numbers both dived during the period when Boone Stutz was the long-snapper.
Overall, I think that the Packers are a slightly better team in every facet of the game except for the pass rush, and they do have the home-field advantage, but a Seattle upset certainly wouldn't be ridiculous. Unless the Seahawks upset the Packers by taking them to overtime, winning the coin toss, taking the ball, and scoring immediately. That would be ridiculous.
|We missed it with no Scramble for the Ball this week... so here's Jason Beattie's latest cartoon!|
First of all, I'm going to apologize right now to all the Cowboys and Giants fans. Someone else writes the Giants previews for the New York Sun, so my thoughts on this game aren't quite as organized, and in all my poring through spreadsheets, I didn't find as many compelling numbers about this game compared to the others.
If you have read my Slate dialogue with K.C. Joyner, or listened to the podcast I did with Bill Simmons, you know my basic feeling on this game. Two games for the Giants and four games for the Cowboys shouldn't really be enough to establish that the Giants are better than they were during most of the season and the Cowboys are worse. However, that's complicated by the injuries to the important players. The Giants are playing better despite these injuries, but the Cowboys are not. If Romo's thumb injury still has him throwing off target, and Terrell Owens can't play because of his ankle, the Cowboys are in serious trouble here.
It's also worth noting that the Cowboys' struggles have come on both sides of the ball. In the first 12 games of the year, Dallas had 31.4% DVOA on offense and -9.7% DVOA on defense. In the final four games, Dallas had -18.1% DVOA on offense and 5.7% DVOA on defense.
(There is some evidence that a great team falling apart at the end of the regular season has no more difficulty in the playoffs than a great team that is playing well at the end of the regular season, but we'll get to that in the AFC preview...)
The Giants ranked 31st in DVOA against tight ends, worse than any team except Denver. In the first week of the season, Jason Witten just brutalized them, catching every intended pass for 116 yards and a touchdown. In Week 10, however, the Cowboys needed to use Witten as a blocker more because of the improved Giants pass rush, and he had just two catches for 10 yards. Without Terrell Owens, Tony Romo needs Witten out there in pass patterns, but matched up against Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck, he also needs Witten in to help with protection. He can't have both.
(I should note that pass protection wasn't the only reason why the Cowboys didn't throw a lot to Witten in the second game; they also had a few plays where they used him on patterns underneath to open things up for the wide receivers, like when rookie Michael Johnson blew coverage on a 50-yard touchdown to Terrell Owens.)
If the Cowboys go up on the Giants early, they'll be a tough opponent to come back on. The Cowboys offense ranks third in DVOA when leading by 1-8 points, first when leading by nine or more, and second in late and close situations (second half or overtime, score within one touchdown).
The Dallas offense was best when running around right end, which is the weakness of the Giants' run defense. The Cowboys were worst when running around left end, which is the strength of the Giants' run defense. As for Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, when you look at Adjusted Line Yards numbers, you will also notice that it is easier to run to the right against Dallas than to run to the left.
The more yardage needed on third down, the worse the Giants offense has been compared to the league average. The Giants rank 11th on third-and-short, 21st on third-and-medium, and 31st on third-and-long. (Obviously, they've looked a little better than that over the last two weeks.)
The Giants' record on third-and-long brings up an interesting dynamic that should lead to extended drives by both teams. The Dallas offense is better than the Giants defense at every "to go" distance on third down. The Giants offense is better than the Dallas defense at every "to go" distance on third down except for third-and-long.
Both the Cowboys and Giants have excellent pass rushes and good pass protection. The Cowboys rank fourth in Adjusted Sack Rate on defense and seventh on offense. The Giants rank first in Adjusted Sack Rate on defense and 11th on offense.
If Manning is taking what the Cowboys are giving him, like he did with the Patriots and Bucs, that probably means a lot of throwing at Jacques "The Human Target" Reeves. Reeves was targeted on 21 percent of charted passes against Dallas, the highest percentage of any cornerback in the league.
Again, sorry there isn't more here. So much of this game depends on injuries. If everyone was healthy, and we were only looking at season-long stats as a whole, this would clearly be the biggest mismatch of the second round. The injury issues and late-season collapse of the Cowboys makes things a lot more confusing.
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. These numbers are all regular season only unless noted, with the exception of 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) and includes the first round of the playoffs.
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." The trendline is there to help understand the chart, and shouldn't be seen as a prediction that the team will follow the trendline exactly in the next game.
56 comments, Last at 14 Jan 2008, 5:41pm by Jacob Stevens