10 Jan 2009
by Bill Barnwell
For the second week in a row, both of the AFC playoff matchups are repeat showings. Tennessee and Pittsburgh, the conference's top two seeds, pulled out regular season wins over Baltimore and San Diego, respectively, by a total of four points. The victors held the lead for a combined 127 seconds and scored exactly one touchdown between them.
Those statistics imply a similar level of performance between the winners and losers in each game; DVOA holds that to be false. The Steelers were able to parlay a colossal difference in DVOA (56.7% to the Chargers' -29.5%) and a confused head official into a one-point win. The Ravens failed to capitalize on an advantage in DVOA (38.6% for Baltimore, 11.3% for Tennessee), losing in part thanks to one of the worst roughing the passer calls in recorded history.
Of course, each team has experienced changes since then. Although Kyle Vanden Bosch and Albert Haynesworth are expected to play, it's impossible to predict how their injuries might affect their performance. Baltimore's introduced a new primary offensive scheme since Week 5, and will likely have the one player Tennessee exploited after a late-game injury firmly planted to the bench. San Diego will likely be short a former MVP, while Pittsburgh will take their roster from Week 11 and add two of their top three cornerbacks to go with their offensive weapon best suited for attacking the Chargers defense. Oh, and the highest-paid player in the league is coming off a concussion that left him strapped to a stretcher two weeks ago.
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.
This year, we're going back to the old school for our in-game discussions. You can use these preview threads to discuss things before and then during each game. Just remember to switch over from NFC to AFC when the NFC game is over.
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San Diego's playoff chances were nearly eliminated by a whistle blown by accident; Baltimore, on the other hand, might have beat Tennessee had a whistle been blown when it should have been. Up 10-6 with 5:57 to go and Tennessee facing third-and-10 on its own 20-yard line, Titans left tackle Michael Roos committed a false start. Instead of whistling the play dead, the referees let the play continue; the result was an incomplete pass, but in the process of his throw, Kerry Collins was grazed on the side of the helmet by a lunging, off-balance Terrell Suggs. The result was a roughing the passer call against Suggs that belied belief, all while superseding the Roos false start that should've ended the play in the first place. Instead of punting and giving the ball back to the Ravens, the Titans got a new set of downs, continued their drive by attacking injury replacement Frank Walker at cornerback, and got the ball to Bo Scaife for a game-winning touchdown with 1:56 left.
Blaming the whistle and subsequent penalty that shouldn't have happened for the Ravens loss is overly simplistic, but it certainly played a large role. So did the presence of Walker, a journeyman who was targeted on virtually every pass the Titans threw after coming in for the injured Fabian Washington. With Washington and Samari Rolle starting at corner this week, Walker will be a peripheral figure this week.
While the Ravens weren't great on offense, they were able to limit the effectiveness of Vanden Bosch and Haynesworth, the terrors of the Titans' defensive line. While we don't know whether the Titans' stars be 100 percent or not this weekend, the Ravens were able to successfully limit the impact they had on the game in Week 5 by daring them to be, of all things, undisciplined.
The first encounter between these two teams took place before the Ravens began to use the unbalanced line that they've come to incorporate as a core offensive tenet over the past few weeks. Adam Terry, who serves as that extra lineman, started this game at right tackle, while current right tackle Willie Anderson was a backup. In addition, right guard Marshal Yanda is on injured reserve, with Chris Chester in his stead. Without using that unbalanced line, the Ravens were clearly concerned about the ability of Vanden Bosch and especially Haynesworth to blow up the running game. They used several subtle methodologies to keep them from causing havoc.
First was a move so innocuous that most fans don't even notice it -- having a wide receiver come in motion during the snap and fake receiving an end around from the quarterback. This is normally designed to keep defenders on the second and third level from flowing to the ball, but here, it served a different purpose. By running the wide receiver on his reverse, the defensive end from the opposite side of the play was unable to provide backside pursuit, as it was his responsibility to contain in the case that the receiver actually got the ball. Often, this meant locking Vanden Bosch in place. After a quarter or so of doing this successfully on virtually every running play, either Vanden Bosch or defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had seen enough and just started to let the ends collapse on running plays from other side. When the Ravens finally ran a reverse in the third quarter, it went for nine yards and almost went for a long score. Meanwhile, with Vanden Bosch attempting to run down plays to the weak side, the Ravens had opportunities to exploit that aggressiveness with counter plays.
That meant somehow misdirecting the defense without giving Haynesworth the opportunity to crash the backfield before their backs could make their cutback. The Ravens were able to accomplish just that by giving the ball to their fullback, either Le'Ron McClain or Lorenzo Neal. Although it's rare to see a fullback go anywhere but straight up the gut, McClain and Neal attacked the C-gaps (between their tackle and tight end). That allowed them to run away from Haynesworth without letting him get too far into the backfield. With the unbalanced line, the Ravens could also choose to double-team Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch on every play with offensive linemen, while leaving left tackle Jared Gaither and left guard Ben Grubbs, their two most talented linemen, in one-on-one situations.
As for the passing game, Joe Flacco is not going to struggle as much as you might think on Saturday. The reason why has to do with the Titans' tendencies on defense: specifically, the fact that they almost never blitz. Tennessee sent five or more rushers on only 17 percent of pass attempts this season, the second-lowest total in football. That is good news for Flacco, whose biggest weakness remains his struggles with successfully identifying blitz schemes pre-snap and adjusting his pass protection accordingly. With the Titans only sending the front four most of the time, Dr. Flacco won't have to do much on-the-fly diagnosing. While Tennessee will dial up the occasional blitz, run many a twist, and move their four linemen around to try and isolate advantageous matchups, it'll be far easier for Flacco to handle than the sort of blitzes he could expect from his own defense. It'll be interesting to see if Schwartz comes out of his comfort zone and blitzes more frequently. According to our game charters, he'll need to send a big blitz: Flacco actually has reasonable numbers against five pass rushers, but he averaged just 4.2 yards per play against six pass rushers, with only seven of 29 plays meeting our basic standard for success. Meanwhile you can expect to see the Ravens cut blocking on the outside -- and maybe also against Haynesworth, who's recovering from a sprained MCL.
Flacco wasn't sacked in the first game, but he did struggle when he scrambled. He threw two picks in the game, and had a third called back on review because the defender didn't have control of the ball. All three came when Flacco was on the run. That wasn't a season-wide trend for him, as we only have one other interception all year charted with Flacco scrambling. The two interceptions were plays where Flacco's receiver was undercut by a defender that he either didn't see or properly account for; the overturned pick was a similar play, but it was a throw he was realistically trying to throw away. Even if they aren't able to sack Flacco, the Titans will be able to force him out of the pocket with pressure at some point during this game. It'll be on Flacco to make better decisions than he did the first time around.
As far as actually throwing the ball goes, Flacco looked much better as the game went along. His first ten attempts were all unsuccessful plays, either resulting in incomplete passes or completions that didn't push his team far enough towards a first down. That culminated with his first non-overturned interception, which came about halfway through the second quarter. When he came back on the field, Flacco was a changed man: 10 of his next 13 attempts were successful. It came thanks to an adjustment in the types of throws Flacco was making. The Ravens started the game throwing mostly passes to the sideline, with a mix of quick outs often coming out of Twin WR and Trips sets. After the pick, Baltimore started to throw more of their passes towards the center of the field, getting away from the crossing patterns and sticking with slants and option routes from Todd Heap, who spent most of his time in the first quarter blocking. With the unbalanced line, the Ravens may split Heap out some at the hashmark and challenge Tennessee to split out one of their linebackers or safeties to man up against him.
The Ravens spent most of their time throwing at cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who spent most of the day matched up against the Ravens' Derrick Mason. Although Finnegan's seen his league-wide reputation skyrocket this year, that's not backed up by his numbers in our Game Charting Project. Last year, Finnegan did well in our numbers, but this year he comes out as inferior to opposite corner Nick Harper. Finnegan's had a Success Rate of 53 percent while allowing 6.9 yards per attempt, while Harper's had a 68 percent Success Rate while giving up only 5.0 yards per throw. While Finnegan was selected to the All-Pro team earlier today, it's entirely possible that he might not have been the best cornerback on his team.
The other factor that came into play in the first encounter was the lack of discipline exhibited by the Titans' players. We don't mean gap discipline -- we mean "not-acting-like-idiots" discipline. Finnegan took unsportsmanlike conduct and unnecessary roughness penalties within two minutes of each other, and had the temerity to get in the face of linebacker (and team captain) Keith Bulluck after being told to zip his lip. Haynesworth was called for a personal foul after the extra point attempt on the same drive, and was lucky to avoid a personal foul penalty after tackling Flacco on an encroachment call where the whistle had clearly blown. That would have only been a two-yard penalty because of the Ravens' proximity to the goal line, and the events of one series are not an indicator that the Titans will blow up again, but we'd be remiss to talk about the first game and not mention the penalty spree.
(The red trendline on the Tennessee chart represents what the Tennessee trend would look like without the Week 17 game where the Titans rested their starters.
Before you read any of this, please check out the excellent work (as always) done by Doug Farrar in Cover-3 this week, where he analyzed the Titans offensive line play against the Ravens in their first encounter. While Doug covered most of how the Titans' offensive line will try and handle the Ravens' exotic blitz schemes, the one thing we'll add is that the Ravens were most frequently overloading their blitzes on the right side, attempting to end up with Titans left tackle Michael Roos in the "I don't have anyone to block so I'm going to stay here in my crouch and look around for something to do" pose while a rusher came free. As Roos is (arguably) the Titans' best offensive lineman, that's a good thing for the Ravens.
The other big concern for the Titans on the offensive line is the absence of center Kevin Mawae, who's been ruled out for the game with an elbow injury. Second-year man Leroy Harris will take his place; Harris is one of the league's stronger centers, but he's not particularly agile. Expect the Ravens to come at him with blitzes through the A-gaps on either side of him, while nose tackle Justin Bannan will attempt to use his superior athleticism to get by the inexperienced center. The Titans will likely counter this with screens to Chris Johnson, while the Ravens will counter-act that by pushing Ed Reed closer to the line ... it's a vicious, gorgeous cycle of football.
One thing you'll certainly see the Titans do when they want to run the ball is go into two tight end sets. The Titans were successful on three of their six run plays against the Ravens when they had two tight ends in the game, but were successful on only two of 14 attempts with a single tight end. That was a trend that held up over the course of the season, as the Titans had a Success Rate of 34 percent on the ground with one running back, rising up to 47 percent with two tight ends. That's not just an illusion of the Titans using two tight ends strictly in short-yardage; on first down, the Titans had a Success Rate of 33 percent with one tight end, but 43 percent with two. Much like the Ravens' unbalanced line, the two tight end set allows the Titans to double opponents at the point of attack or, alternately, get an offensive lineman or two into the second level. Expect to see a lot of Chris Johnson, due to LenDale White's difficulties in pass protection.
The Titans struggled to throw the ball against the Ravens, who primarily played a Cover-2 shell behind their blitz packages. The turning point of the game was the injury to Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington, which necessitated the arrival of the aforementioned Walker. Walker was targeted on more than half of the throws Collins made the rest of the way. It's a trend that we've seen in other games, too. I just charted the second half of the Ravens-Jaguars game in Week 17, and in that game, David Garrard targeted Walker nine times, as opposed to five times for the rest of the defense combined. Even when the Titans weren't targeting Walker, the Ravens were limited from blitzing Collins the way they wanted to because of the need to have either strong safety Jim Leonhard or free safety Ed Reed back in coverage. The Ravens blitzed seven players three times before Washington went down; they didn't blitz seven once afterwards. Walker was beaten several times for first downs, and had a likely touchdown saved by a poor throw from Collins. They targeted him in man coverage on out patterns, in zone on a sluggo, and used a pick play to create separation for an easy first down.
Fortunately for the Ravens, Washington will be starting this weekend, so Walker will only be on the field in nickel situations and on special teams. The Titans will try to get Walker in man coverage against Scaife, or in the slot against Brandon Jones. The Titans will also get primary wideout Justin Gage back after missing him in the first matchup; Gage is the Titans' best downfield receiver, so expect Collins to at least take a shot or two early to Gage downfield, in the hopes of giving Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan reason to pause.
The Baltimore coverage units struggled against Tennessee's in the first matchup, with the Titans starting the game with kickoff returns of 28 and 49 yards, followed by a 33-yard punt return. After that, they didn't get a chance to return anything the rest of the way. Don't expect thing to be much different on Saturday, as the Ravens rank between 23rd and 27th in every special teams category we track except for one: Punting, where they're the best in the league. The Titans are 21st on both punts and punt returns, but rank between fifth and 15th everywhere else.
The advantage the Ravens had in the first game that we haven't talked about yet is where the game was played; while that matchup was in Baltimore, Saturday's game will be at Tennessee. In other words, don't expect Tennessee to have radio problems and/or have to hold up giant laminated cards with "POSSE" or "STRAIGHT" on them to let their defense know which Ravens personnel set is on the field.
Even with the home field advantage, though, the Titans aren't a team particularly well-equipped to exploit the Ravens' weaknesses. Joe Flacco struggles with the blitz, and the Titans don't blitz; the Titans build their offense around the run, and the Ravens have the best run defense in football. Even if Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch come back at 100 percent, they had little impact on the first game. The Titans will be missing their most important offensive lineman, a player whose role is even more important considering the confusing nature of the defense across from him. All these factors are more likely to adversely affect the Titans than the lack of rest and trip to Tennessee would the Ravens. It should be close, but I think things favor the Ravens.
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The first Chargers-Steelers game was a caricature of professional football in the same way that Michael Cimino's legendary flop Heaven's Gate was a caricature of both Western movies and the New Hollywood era of filmmaking. It certainly wasn't high art, even if the people producing and performing in it had been capable of popular, iconic work only years earlier. It had some conventions of the genre in spades (a half of heavy snow, an absolute disaster of a field, seemingly ambivalent or otherwise casual refereeing), while others were brazenly ignored (ideas of forward progress or time management). Each work had their flawed, iconic hero at the helm; add to the ranks of the compulsively undecided and iconoclastic Cimino one Ben Roethlisberger, attempting to scramble out of the pocket before realizing that he was pinned inside by linemen, only to notice that he had a wide receiver wide open to throw to instead. The twisting of normal quarterback conventions is -- it's something. The comparisons between the players and integral figures in the other work's conception and realization go on -- think of LaDainian Tomlinson as Kris Kristofferson, the star who'd peaked two years prior, or Troy Polamalu as Christopher Walken, the superhero who it seems impossible to reimagine outside of his craft. You get the idea.
Cimino had his reputation forever sullied and helped make sure that directors wouldn't get the level of creative freedom they'd previously enjoyed for over a decade. The Chargers and the Steelers are just going to make a sequel. May it be prettier than the original.
At the time of writing, we're still unsure whether LaDainian Tomlinson is expected to play on Sunday, although he's listed as Doubtful on the NFL's injury report. Tomlinson didn't have a great game against the Steelers the first time around, but the moves he pulled off were veteran plays that would point to him having a second act as a veteran runner; he did a fantastic job of selling a screen against a Steelers blitz on one play, while he subtly stepped past two blitzers on a draw, only to run right into the hole they'd sprinted through. Darren Sproles will replace LT if he can't go, but the chances of him having a huge game don't seem particularly bright. While the Colts were 20th in the league in defending against running backs in the passing game, the Steelers are the best team in football at doing so. On the other hand, they weren't particularly great against defending specifically against screens to the running back, and the Chargers were able to pick up first downs on both a swing pass and a screen pass to Tomlinson. Expect Sproles to be relatively quiet in the passing game, but to pick up a first down or two when he does get the rock from Philip Rivers.
Rivers really struggled with making good decisions the first time these two met; his DVOA of -12.6% was his third-worst performance of the year, with the second of his two interceptions serving as an absolute game-changer. San Diego had the ball on the Pittsburgh 17 with 1:33 left in the second quarter and threw an ugly pick; it appeared that the ball may have slipped out of his hands, but the pick prevented San Diego from going up at least 10-2, if not 13-2. Instead, the Steelers drove down the field and kicked a field goal right before halftime, and when they did the same thing at the beginning of the third quarter, by the time Rivers had gotten the ball back, he was down 8-7.
That Rivers struggled came in spite of the fact that the Steelers were missing starting cornerback DeShea Townsend and his likely replacement, Bryant McFadden. Instead, dime cornerback William Gay started across from Ike Taylor, who had a great game matched up across from Vincent Jackson all day. Taylor followed Jackson across the field, meaning that Gay was matched up against Chris Chambers. He and the vociferous Steelers pass rush were able to limit Chambers to three catches for 21 yards, while Jackson caught only two of the seven passes thrown to him, gaining 25 yards in the process. Taylor also picked up a very questionable pass interference call that led to the Chargers' only touchdown. The constant bead that the Steelers had on Rivers prevented the tandem from getting too deep: Rivers was hurried or sacked on seven of his 28 dropbacks, and threw only one pass longer than 17 yards downfield all game. In the other 15 games he played, Rivers threw 13.5 percent of his passes 20 yards or more downfield, the sixth-highest percentage of any quarterback in football. In all fairness, his other interception required arguably the play of the year, with Polamalu catching a pass at full stretch that Jackson dropped, following that breaking two tackles before tripping despite having a convoy of blockers and open space in front of him.
The Chargers will try and run picks and crossing patterns off of twin WR sets to occupy the space behind blitzing linebackers and safeties. They also ran a lot of two tight end sets, providing them with an additional blocker on the line for blitzers coming around the edge. With Darren Sproles' abilities as a blocker a bit of a question mark, the Chargers might choose to use fullback Mike Tolbert in the backfield more frequently so that Rivers has someone back there who's bigger in blitz pickup.
The player whom the Chargers will be most concerned about, naturally, is Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. Harrison terrorized the left side of the Chargers line throughout the game, primarily left tackle Marcus McNeill, who looked approximately 60 years old across from Harrison. The highlight for the Steelers was when, in some sort of bizarre experiment, Harrison ended up matched up one-on-one against tight end Brandon Manumaleuna on the Chargers' goal line. The result was a strip sack and a safety. The Steelers will line up Harrison and Polamalu on the edge next to each other at times, which I'm pretty sure can be dipped in water and thrown in the microwave for 30 seconds to make instant false starts. Polamalu spent a lot of time on the line of scrimmage in the first game, often lining up in front of a receiver and dropping back into a zone as opposed to playing man coverage, although Polamalu will end up on some blitzes in man coverage against Antonio Gates. Gates was pretty effectively covered by a combination of Polamalu and the Steelers' linebackers, catching only two passes for 10 yards. He was a nonfactor when split out as a wide receiver, not even drawing a single throw.
It was amazing how simple and brutally effective the Steelers' offensive scheme was against the Chargers. Their success revolved around lining up three receivers in a trips bunch set, usually Hines Ward, Nate Washington, and tight end Matt Spaeth, who was replacing the injured Heath Miller. Ward and Washington would run a simple combination of routes: We're talking crossing patterns, pick play, quick in and out, or slant/deep post. Spaeth, meanwhile, would run what amounts to the same route over and over again, a six-yard spacing route designed to be the safety valve and likely hot route. Since the Chargers employed zone coverage on virtually every play, this route was open over and over again. It helped Spaeth to the biggest day of his career. With Miller back in the lineup this week, and the Chargers 26th in the league defending against tight ends, Miller could very well have a career day out of the Trips Bunch set. To try and counter their struggles against tight ends, the Chargers have benched safety Clinton Hart for former cornerback Steve Gregory. Gregory will likely draw the coverage against Miller if the Chargers try to man up this formation, which could very well create other problems with the aforementioned pick plays.
The Chargers will keep Antonio Cromartie at right corner and Quentin Jammer at left corner regardless of which receiver they're up against. That's a bad idea against the Steelers, who often line up their best receiver, Ward, in the slot. He spent most of the game matched up against Antoine Cason there, which is a bad matchup for San Diego. Expect to see Ward line up frequently on Jammer's side, as the Chargers were more likely to move Cromartie to the slot than they were Jammer. Ward's proclivity as a blocker is well-known, but you'll even see him do things like chip the outside linebacker on his way to a pattern.
Of the 11 sacks the Chargers recorded in their eight regular season games under Ron Rivera, four of them came against Roethlisberger. Two of the sacks were coverage sacks, while the other two were screwups in pass protection by Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore. The Chargers love to twist their defensive linemen while shooting a linebacker or a defensive back into the gap occupied by the twisting end. Stopping those sort of blitzes is not that difficult, but it requires good communication throughout an offensive line and the backs behind them. It's Roethlisberger's job to make sure everyone's in the right place. Another way to alleviate that pressure is through the screen pass, but the Steelers had a success rate of only 25 percent on screen passes, fifth-worst in the league. Their offensive line just isn't athletic enough to get outside on a consistent basis, nor is Roethlisberger particularly good at improvising when they fail.
The Chargers weren't much better when stopping the run. Parker had his second best game of the year by DVOA, performing at a 23.3% clip while gaining 126 yards on 25 carries. Their performance looked slightly better because of their one excellent play, a stuff on Moore (getting his only carry of the game) on fourth-and-goal from inside the one-yard line. The Chargers did an excellent job of getting penetration, while Jammer sealed the edge and Brandon Siler got into the backfield. From then on, the Steelers used Gary Russell as their short yardage back; he went 2-for-2. Over the course of the season, on third/fourth and less than three, Moore was three of seven, Russell was seven of ten, Parker was three of five, and Roethlisberger was two of four.
Although Jeff Reed has been lumped in with the Brothers Gramatica and Mike Vanderjagt for going all Shiancoe on his camera phone, he remains one of the better kickers in the league; he was fifth in the league on kickoffs this year along with being league-average on scoring attempts. That combination's a net plus. Nate Kaeding was unimpressive in both categories (22nd and 23rd, respectively), and unlike Reed, Kaeding has the reputation of being unreliable in clutch situations, if that notion strikes you one way or another as relevant. There's never been a successful kick of more than 50 yards at Heinz Field, so don't expect to see any long-distance scoring.
Mike Scifres' performance from last week needs no introduction -- he was sixth in the league in punting this year, though, so while he's a very good punter, expecting him to dominate the game again would be presumptuous. The Chargers continued to have Darren Sproles returns punts and kicks despite expanding his role; Sproles isn't a great returner, so the Chargers might be better off putting someone else back there and letting the smaller Sproles take a few plays off. Antonio Cromartie springs to mind, but the Giants fan in me thinks of Jason Sehorn's torn ACL and shudders at the possibility of the Chargers losing their best corner for a marginal gain on special teams.
A Chargers fourth-and-one stop that was out of character with the rest of their performance along with a fumble recovery in the end zone made the score of this game much closer than it actually was. A final score of 23-10 would have been much more indicative of the two teams' level of play. Furthermore, the Steelers will be returning their offensive player best equipped to take advantage of the Chargers' defensive issues (along with their number two and three cornerbacks), while the Chargers will be without their best player.
After the failure of Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino was called upon to direct Footloose; after four months of battling with Paramount, he was fired and never directed a movie that found both critical and commercial success again. In honor of his last chance at cultural relevance, we predict that, on Sunday, the Steelers will be Kevin Bacon and the Chargers John Lithgow.
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.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI 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). These numbers are all regular season only, except for WEIGHTED DVOA which 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. Those numbers are explained here.
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.
66 comments, Last at 11 Jan 2009, 8:43pm by Theo