Our offseason Four Downs series continues with a division-by-division look at each team's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. In the NFC North, quality wide receivers and defensive backs are in short supply.
05 Jan 2008
by Aaron Schatz
Here we go with the previews of Sunday's Wild Card games. Click here to read the previews of Saturday's games.
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 are heavily influenced by the wacky Week 17 games.
Last year , going into the Super Bowl, the Oakland Raiders offense was clicking on all cylinders. Rich Gannon had thrown for a combined 569 yards in two easy wins over the Jets and Titans, completing 49 of 71 passes for five touchdowns and just one interception, plus 41 yards and a touchdown rushing. The battle was on: the league's best defense against the league's best offense, and league's best offense was coming into the game as strong as they had ever been.
At which point they got smoked. Gannon threw for five interceptions, and most of his 272 yards as well as his two touchdowns came in the second half with Tampa already leading 31-3.
How long is momentum? Is momentum two games, or three games? Three weeks ago, the Colts struggled to beat the 5-11 Houston Texans, in a game they had to win to get home-field advantage. What if momentum is four games? Four weeks ago, the Colts were blown out of their own building by the Denver Broncos. Clearly they've overcome this game, but they were not exactly clicking on all cylinders in Weeks 16 and 17.
So, with the media story going from "Peyton can't win the big one" to "Peyton is unstoppable" fast enough to give whiplash to even the most neckless offensive lineman, I hereby advise everyone to just calm down.
That's what I wrote at the very beginning of the first AFC Championship preview in the history of this website. The Colts, full of "momentum," were completely destroyed by the Patriots in the AFC Championship.
Why do I bring this up in a preview of an NFC Wild Card game? Here we are, four years later, and we still have a problem where the mainstream press holds up a string of just one or two good games as "momentum." Exhibit A: Little brother Eli.
The Giants were fabulous against the Patriots last week, and anybody who disagrees with that statement is an idiot. It was the best game the Giants have played all year. But it was one game. A more accurate way to judge the Giants is to look at the trend over the past two or three months. By all means, ignore the two losses that started the season -- those were forever ago. Still, for the fourth straight season, the Giants declined in the second half of the year. New York's offense ranked 11th in DVOA through Week 9, but ranks just 23rd since Week 10 -- and yes, that includes last week's strong game against New England. It doesn't look as strong on the week-to-week graph because the defense didn't decline one iota.
On the other side of the field, Tampa Bay's defense ranks third in the NFL since Week 10, after ranking ninth in Weeks 1-9. One of the big reasons has been the emergence of former Arena Football defensive end Greg White and the development of rookie defensive end Gaines Adams. Tampa Bay's Adjusted Sack Rate on defense was 5.6% in their first five games, 7.0% in the next six games, and 8.7% in the final five games.
The Giants' offensive strategy here is fairly clear: run, run, and run some more. Tampa Bay is seventh in defensive DVOA against the run, but that's primarily because they didn't give up a lot of long runs. Tampa Bay was only 22nd in Adjusted Line Yards, and 31st against runs up the middle. The Giants were second in Adjusted Line Yards, and third on runs up the middle. Brandon Jacobs is the world's most agile bowling ball. (A man that size should not be able to cut like that; it goes against the laws of nature, and studying Brandon Jacobs has already been banned by the Kansas State Board of Education.) Of course, it is worth asking if the Giants will be as successful running up the middle with backup Gary Ruegamer at center instead of the injured Shaun O'Hara -- and will Ruegamer be able to hold up against the improved Tampa Bay pass rush?
If you listened to me on the Bill Simmons podcast this week, you heard Simmons lamenting that the Patriots didn't blitz Eli Manning until the second half last week. Well, if Bill didn't like that game, he isn't going to like this game, because Tampa Bay sent just three or four pass rushers more often than any team in the league except Indianapolis. That's the Kiffin/Dungy style, right? You have to get your pass rush from those front four guys. Clearly, it worked for the Bucs, especially as their younger linemen got more experience. However, based on the charting data, Eli Manning really doesn't play any different whether there are four rushers or five. He is a bit worse with six or more, but the difference is not as big as you might think given that this is a man who has his own Bill Simmons "face."
Tampa Bay is the third-ranked defense in the NFL when it comes to covering the opposition's number-one receiver. Usually, teams that play a high amount of Tampa-2 give up lots of yardage to the opposition's top receiver while shutting down the others, but that wasn't true this year -- Chicago, Tampa Bay, and Indianapolis ranked second, third, and fourth against number-one receivers. Of course, Tampa wasn't actually playing as much Tampa-2 this year; defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin used a lot more Cover-4.
Also, contrary to popular belief -- and contrary to his habits of 2006 -- Eli Manning doesn't use Plaxico Burress as a crutch any more than any other quarterback uses his best receiver. The Giants threw about one-quarter of all passes to the number-one receiver, which is about league average.
The battle between the Tampa Bay offense and New York defense is a lot more even than the battle on the other side of the ball. The Tampa Bay offense, like the New York offense, has declined in the last few weeks, but most of that came while they were blowing off the final two games of the year. The Giants' defense stayed strong even after injuries, including an important one to linebacker (and passing-situation defensive tackle) Mathias Kiwanuka.
Everything for the Giants starts with their excellent -- and deep -- defensive line. The Giants' defense led the league in both sacks and Adjusted Sack Rate, and they were third in Adjusted Line Yards, so they aren't about to let Earnest Graham run all over them. Tampa Bay's offense was just 24th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and Jeff Garcia tends to take off and scramble if a defender simply breathes on him hard. A lot of times those scrambles lead to positive yards, but I must admit that I overstated Garcia's case in the Simmons podcast. Looking closer at rushing DVOA for quarterbacks, Garcia was not a good scrambler, just an average one.
However, the Giants need to really watch out and make sure they don't fall for the Jeff Garcia play-fake. Based on the early game charting data, Tampa Bay ranks only behind New England when it comes to yards per pass/scramble with a play-action fake. Tampa gets 11.0 yards per play with the fake, 5.0 yards per play without. Most of Joey Galloway's huge plays come off play-action, but even Ike "three yards and curl" Hilliard has three catches for 38 yards or more. Plus, Garcia was only sacked once with a play-action fake, but he scrambled nine times (that we've charted) for four first downs and a touchdown.
For those wondering, the Giants allowed 1.7 yards more on play-action passes than other passes, which is about the NFL average. They ranked 21st in DVOA against number-one receivers, but were top 10 against number twos and "other receivers." You know that when the Bucs want a big play, it is all about the ageless Joey Galloway. As noted above, the average offense threw 25 percent of passes to the number-one receiver, which gained 28.5 percent of the receiving yardage. Tampa Bay threw just 22 percent of passes to their number-one receiver, but those passes gained 30 percent of Tampa Bay's receiving yardage.
Tampa Bay uses a lot of two-tight end sets, but they don't really use the tight ends as receivers more than the average offense. They may want to change that against the Giants, who rank 31st in defensive DVOA against opposing tight ends.
Tampa Bay threw a higher percentage of passes to running backs than any other offense, and had opponents throw a higher percentage of passes to running backs than any other defense. However, the Giants don't look like the right team to take advantage of either trend. The Giants averaged a league-low 4.2 yards per pass when throwing to running backs, and were the only team to complete less than 60 percent of passes to running backs. On defense, the Giants were 28th in DVOA against passes to running backs.
There are some interesting contrasts between these two teams that aren't reflected in the usual offensive and defensive stats. For example, the Giants have been among the league's most penalized teams for years, but that finally changed in 2007. The Giants had just 90 penalties (including declined and offsetting), which was 27th in the NFL. However, no team in the league had more penalties called on their opponents than the Giants did (133).
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, was called for fewer defensive penalties than any other team, but an above-average number of offensive and special teams penalties.
Tampa Bay starts the average offensive drive on its own 33.3-yard line, the second-best average starting position in the league behind Chicago. The other team's offense starts its average drive against the Tampa Bay defense on its own 26.9-yard line, the best average starting position for any defense in the league. Tampa Bay may not get starting field position that good on offense this week, however, because both teams are strong punting and poor on punt returns.
There's no question that the New York Giants proved my pessimistic preseason predictions to be completely wrong. This team does a lot of things very well. The Giants run the ball, they stop the run, and they have an amazing pass rush. Yet their secondary isn't very good, their quarterback is extremely erratic, and last week's all-out effort against the Patriots cost them with some serious injuries. I'll repeat what I said during yesterday's playoff chat over at BP.com: All eight teams have a shot to win this weekend, of course, but looking at the Football Outsiders DVOA ratings, it isn't even close: Tampa Bay vs. New York is the biggest mismatch of the first round.
Like the other AFC wild card game, this is a rematch of a recent contest. Back in Week 14, San Diego came back from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter and beat the Titans 23-17 in overtime. That game established the basic theme of this game: there's only so long you can hold down a talented, well-rounded team like San Diego, and there's only so long the Tennessee defense can hold out without help from the offense.
Tennessee finished with the top defense of the year according to DVOA, but top defense doesn't necessarily mean great defense. Tennessee would not have ranked among the top three defenses of any other season going back to 1996. Overall, the Titans rank as just the 59th best defense since 1996.
However, all that comes with a huge asterisk: a 320-pound asterisk named Albert Haynesworth. Haynesworth was the most dominating defensive player in the league this year, but he missed three games at midseason due to injury. If we remove Weeks 10-12, Tennessee's rating improves from -13.5% to -23.5%. That would rank as the tenth-best defense of the last dozen years, ahead of such teams as the 2003 Patriots and 2006 Bears.
The Titans have the best defense in the league against tight ends, and they rank third against running backs used the passing game. Of course, this didn't stop Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson from each picking up a receiving touchdown in the first meeting of these teams.
There is one important place the Tennessee defense has problems: they can't stop the run on third down. The Titans' defense was top ten on first and second down, but only Arizona was worse against the run on third down. San Diego's offense was the second-best in the league running on third down, behind only Pittsburgh.
Of course, you aren't going to run on third-and-long very often, so you better get it done on early downs. Despite the strong running game, the San Diego offense has a problem with going three-and-out. The Chargers went three-and-out on 25 percent of drives, the highest percentage among playoff teams. The Titans defense forced three-and-out on 27.5 percent of drives, the best percentage among playoff teams.
And when Tennessee blitzes, they make it count: Tennessee ranks 27th in sending five or more pass rushers, but 14th in sending six or more. That's good, because apparently when you send a big blitz at Philip Rivers he turns to jello. The limited charting data so far has 25 passes listed with six pass rushers. Rivers completed 9-of-23 with a sack and a scramble, and the defenses had an 80 percent Success Rate on these plays.
The Titans have the best defense measured over a full season, but over the second half of the year, the best defense belongs to San Diego. The defense started to turnaround when cornerback Antonio Cromartie finally entered the starting lineup in Week 10, and improved cornerback play has combined with an excellent pass rush to create a defense heavily weighted towards stopping the pass. For the season, the Chargers rank second in DVOA against the pass but 19th against the run.
That could be an issue since the Titans' offense is built around the ground game. Tennessee is just mediocre running the ball, but the Titans were one of three teams to run on more than half of all plays because their passing game was even worse. (Yes, some of that is Vince Young, but they were still sixth in running back carries). The Titans are strongest running behind left tackle Michael Roos (sixth in Adjusted Line Yards), which is the weakness of the San Diego run defense. They were the worst defense in the league against runs behind left tackle.
Of course, the Titans aren't even sure who their quarterback will be this Sunday. If Vince Young can't go because of a strained quad, veteran Kerry Collins will run the offense. That may not be such a bad thing, because Young regressed as a passer this year, and threw for just 121 yards with two interceptions when these teams first met. On the other hand, without the threat of Young scrambling to the outside, it is easier to concentrate on shutting down running backs LenDale White and Chris Brown. Over the past two seasons, Titans running backs averaged 4.3 yards per carry with Young at quarterback and 3.1 yards per carry with Collins behind center.
Tennessee's offense is also going to have to deal with the fact that the Chargers won't be buying their play-action fakes. The early charting data lists 31 percent of Tennessee passes/scrambles as play-action fakes, fifth in the league. However, San Diego has been very good against play-action this year, probably the best defense in the league. League-wide, play-action passes (or scrambles) gained 1.5 yards more than passes without play-action. San Diego, however, gave up 2.0 yards less on play-action passes than on other passes. No other defense is even close to that kind of difference.
The other problem is that Tennessee's below-average passing game will be without two important contributors. Roydell Williams is out with a broken ankle; he wasn't Tennesee's best receiver according to DVOA, but he was close behind Justin Gage, and his injury means more of Eric Moulds (solely a possession receiver at this point) or some guy named Biren Ealy who got his first-ever NFL catch last week. Tight end Bo Scaife has a lacerated liver, which costs Vince Young his security blanket. (Hello, Ben Troupe? Earth to Ben Troupe... is Ben Troupe still out there somewhere?)
Tennessee has been far better than San Diego in "late and close" situations: second half or overtime with the score within a touchdown. In these situations, the Titans rank eighth on offense and second on defense. The Chargers rank 25th on offense and 24th on defense. San Diego won only one game all year where they trailed entering the fourth quarter -- but of course, the opponent in that game was Tennessee. San Diego's only other close win this year was the game where Adam Vinatieri shanked a field goal after the Colts came back with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
The first game was a defense-oriented field-position slugfest for at least three quarters, and once again this is the game where special teams is most likely to be a factor. San Diego finished fourth in the Football Outsiders special teams rankings, and the Chargers are above-average in every phase of special teams. Titans kicker Rob Bironas had a better season than any other kicker in the league: he was worth 8.7 points over average on field goals, first in the league, and 6.0 points over average on kickoffs, which ranked third. However, the Titans are poor in every other area of special teams. (Tennessee's "net kickoff" rating is lower because of poor coverage, but Bironas is third if we measure his kickoffs only.)
Tennessee's defense knows how great LaDainian Tomlinson is; their goal is to make Philip Rivers win this game. Back in Week 14, they managed to control Rivers for 45 minutes, but the offense just couldn't get drive-extending first downs to close out the upset in the final quarter. It's hard to imagine that getting any easier now that the Titans will be on San Diego's home turf, led (probably) by a gimpy quarterback who can't use his two favorite pass targets.
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. 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).
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."
25 comments, Last at 07 Jan 2008, 9:48pm by Chris