Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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10 Jan 2009

2009 AFC Divisional Preview

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.

Baltimore at Tennessee



Ravens on Offense
BAL OFF TEN DEF
DVOA 5.6% (18) -16.9% (5)
WEI DVOA 6.8% (15) -10.1% (5)
PASS 5.3% (19) -21.3% (4)
RUSH 5.9% (9) -11.1% (6)
RED ZONE 3.6% (16) -35.3% (4)


Titans on Offense
TEN OFF BAL DEF
DVOA 8.8% (14) -24.5% (2)
WEI DVOA 11.3% (11) -24.7% (2)
PASS 10.2% (16) -23.3% (2)
RUSH 7.5% (7) -26.0% (1)
RED ZONE 35.1% (3) -50.3% (1)


Special Teams
BAL TEN
DVOA 0.2% (17) 1.3% (15)
BAL kickoff -7.0 (25) 3.7 (12)
TEN kickoff -7.4 (27) 1.4 (15)
BAL punts 20.7 (1) -1.8 (21)
TEN punts -2.8 (23) -2.4 (21)
FG/XP -2.2 (22) 6.6 (5)

If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

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.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

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.

WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL

(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.

SPECIAL TEAMS

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.

OUTLOOK

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.

San Diego at Pittsburgh


Chargers on Offense
  SD OFF PIT DEF
DVOA 21.3% (3) -26.4% (1)
WEI DVOA 21.5% (5) -28.1% (1)
PASS 41.7% (2) -29.7% (1)
RUSH -0.1% (18) -22.4% (2)
RED ZONE 27.5% (4) -47.1% (3)
Steelers on Offense
  PIT OFF SD DEF
DVOA 1.7% (20) 10.7% (22)
WEI DVOA 4.9% (17) 9.9% (22)
PASS 2.6% (20) 15.3% (19)
RUSH 0.7% (15) 4.1% (21)
RED ZONE 5.4% (15) -17.5% (7)
Special Teams
  SD PIT
DVOA 1.7% (12) -1.1% (23)
SD kickoff -3.3 (22) -10.3 (30)
PIT kickoff 6.7 (7) 8.2 (5)
SD punts 10.1 (6) -9.4 (31)
PIT punts -1.1 (18) 4.4 (13)
FG/XP -2.4 (23) 0.9 (17)

If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

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.

WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL

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.

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL

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.

SPECIAL TEAMS

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.

OUTLOOK

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.


STATS EXPLAINED

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.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 10 Jan 2009

66 comments, Last at 11 Jan 2009, 8:43pm by Theo

Comments

1
by jonnyblazin :: Fri, 01/09/2009 - 7:59pm

I believe Corey Ivy is the nickel back and Frank Walker is in on dime packages, but I might be wrong. I think most Ravens fans want to see very little of Walker, not only is he bad in coverage but he makes boneheaded unsportsmanlike conduct penalties too.

6
by Eli (not verified) :: Fri, 01/09/2009 - 11:18pm

There is no Corey Ivy, there is no Frank Walker, there is only Ravens Crappy Nickel Back (who gets picked on when there's an injury forcing the Ravens out of their game plan).

2
by Duff Soviet Union :: Fri, 01/09/2009 - 9:33pm

Good stuff Bill. What were the charting numbers for the Ravens cornerbacks? I'd be curious to see Fabian Washington's numbers. As a Raiders fan I thought they made a big mistake letting this guy go to sign MeAngelo Hall. And no, that's not hindsight.

3
by Z.S. (not verified) :: Fri, 01/09/2009 - 9:46pm

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,

What? No it wasn't.

4
by Z.S. (not verified) :: Fri, 01/09/2009 - 9:47pm

Ah, hell, didn't read the context. Sorry!

5
by eric ravens fan (not verified) :: Fri, 01/09/2009 - 11:13pm

Nice Preview on the Ravens. I like their chances, especially because Mawaee is almsot definetly out and the injuries to there D line... The less we see of Ivy and Wlaker, the better, but I think the unbalandec line will work well personaly

7
by Dave0 :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 2:55am

I'm looking forward to the AFC championship game in San Diego next weekend.

8
by Bill Barnwell :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 3:20am

The Chargers-Steelers preview is now added to the article.

9
by steveNC (not verified) :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 3:57am

Thanks for adding it. There's a typo in "The player who the Steelers will be most concerned about, naturally, is Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison." I hope that's a typo.

10
by dancingeek@gmail.com :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 11:48am

You think that Cromartie is a better returner than Sproles? Have you seen the two of them return kicks? Cromartie can't make cuts, all he has is straight line speed. Sproles has the speed and he can cut. As a Chargers fan, I would much rather see Sproles back there returning kicks than Cromartie.

11
by TomC :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 1:11pm

While we don't know whether the Titans' stars be 100 percent or not this weekend...

Arrrrrrrrrrr.

13
by Bill Barnwell :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 2:28pm

That is my shoutout to classic San Francisco Japanese restaurant "We Be Sushi". Just like mom used to make!

12
by Tim (not verified) :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 1:23pm

Tennessee fans better get used to hearing "Number 78 is an eligible receiver." I'd be very surprised if they didn't get that a LOT today.

14
by Eli (not verified) :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 3:20pm

After rewatching the Ravens/Titans Week 5 game on NFLN this morning, I still don't understand why the play wasn't whistled dead after the False Start. Does that every happen or was it a ref mistake?

15
by bballer2294 :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 4:03pm

I am almost positive that was a ref's mistake

16
by Eli (not verified) :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 4:17pm

The NFL Network should make "Official Review" a 30 minute weekly show. There are way more than 3 questionable calls every week. I also wouldn't have to remind my Tivo to record Total Access every Wednesday.

17
by Josh :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 5:10pm

Don't forget to join some of FO's most insightful, funny, and enraged readers on the Unofficial FO IRC chat. We're like the outsiders of the outsiders! We're on the new server, in an attempt to placate the power-hungry Fnor. The new server is bendenweyr.dyndns.org, channel still #fo

Brief tutorial for the IRC-shy:

- Download mIRC from mIRC.com
- type /server bendenweyr.dyndns.org into the status window
- type /join #fo

18
by Lord K :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 5:57pm

How is the Leroy Harris doing against Ngata?

Sorry a bit too busy watching Chris Johnson to track that matchup.

19
by Anger...rising (not verified) :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 6:07pm

I'll never understand why teams burn timeouts to keep 3rd and 18 from becoming 3rd and 23.

20
by Lord K :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 6:43pm

Is this something Tennessee can fix, or will they have to abandon the gun entirely?

22
by narticus :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 6:50pm

I'm going to agree with Dierdorf on that interception. You start inside your one, nearly get stopped for a safety twice, then make the other team start at their ten. Not a bad drive. The Titans were in that long field goal/go for it on fourth range again, so the pick might be an improvement compared to the pass falling incomplete.

Looks like Leroy Harris okay blocking. Snapping, on the other hand...

21
by Alvin Mullins (not verified) :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 6:50pm

As a long time Titan fan this is starting to look eerily like 2000. Titans moving up and down the field but not scoring. Still I like the way the OL is controlling the Ravens DL & LBs.

Gage is eating them up and Collins is picking them apart.

24
by Al Del Greco (not verified) :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 7:01pm

How dare you, sir!

23
by narticus :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 6:55pm

That turnover however, not so good.

25
by Lord K :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 7:31pm

I'm not getting a first down line on my TV - anyone know the reason for that?

26
by narticus :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 7:41pm

Assignment for FO for the off-season: value of Timeouts in close games. 21:28 to play, and Baltimore has already burned two. As close as this game is likely to be, how big might that be?

27
by Lord K :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 7:44pm

Good stop by TEN, but BAL gets good field position again.

28
by ernie cohen (not verified) :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 7:52pm

God, what a bloodbath.

29
by Lord K :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 7:57pm

Don't think I've seen this many helmets flying off in one game, something wrong with the Tennessee equipment manager's measuring tape?

30
by Anger...rising (not verified) :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 8:28pm

Blatant isn't a strong enough word to describe that delay of game.

31
by Dave Brude (not verified) :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 8:28pm

Wow, Bal gets a break on the play clock running out. didn't even appear close.

32
by sdlfjsdklfjs (not verified) :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 8:37pm

My guess is that's the play that makes delay of game a reviewable call.

46
by Eli (not verified) :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 9:10am

Instead of making it reviewable, which would be really annoying, I wonder if they will add a buzzer or something like a shot clock. Delay of game seems to get applied very inconsistently.

48
by nat :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 10:11am

The clock goes to zero with 0.9999999..... seconds left. There really is a full second with zero showing before the play has to start.

It would be a simple matter to have the clock go 3...2...1...0...X. 'X' would mean the play clock expired. That simple change would educate the fans as to when the clock really stops, and would do away with a lot of whining.

33
by t.d. :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 8:46pm

I hope not

34
by narticus :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 8:46pm

I'm disappointed, but please, fellow Titans fans, don't whine like a lot of other teams like to do. The two fumbles in (or at least near) the Red Zone killed us, not a missed delay of game.

38
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 9:49pm

That, and the decision to settle for a 25 yard field goal instead of going for it on 4th and inches from the 10 with 5 minutes left, down 3.

If you can't trust your offense to get 8 inches, whats the chance that you're going to win after you tie the game? The chance of converting there HAS TO BE higher than the chance of stopping baltimore from driving 35 yards into field goal range

58
by Flagstaff :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 6:05pm

Tom Coughlin then made the same mistake on Sunday.

Jacks RULE!

35
by Dave51 (not verified) :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 8:55pm

How big do we think the DVOA split in favor of TN is going to be? 20 points, 30 points, 40 points?

36
by Wide Right (not verified) :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 9:17pm

Was it just me, or did it look like Flacco pulled an Orlovsky -- went out of bounds on his dropback -- when the Ravens were pinned at the 1? Glad CBS showed replays on that.

37
by DGL :: Sat, 01/10/2009 - 9:28pm

Wasn't just you - I thought so to, but when I rewound my DVR it looked like he didn't actually step on the line, but rather that his foot was in the air between the camera and the line.

39
by MC (not verified) :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 12:55am

This is the kind of game I'd expect. On that Titans' field goal, I totally agree - Titans should have gone for it. Playing at home with game on the line, playing to tie just doesn't make sense. They were also passing a bit too much.

50
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 11:05am

Didn't the titans get knocked out of the playoffs in almost the exactly the same manner within the last couple of years (maybe was panthers), playing for a tie late in the game... IE playing for the tie, and then losing because you settled for 3.

40
by cut ray lewis (not verified) :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 12:57am

am i the only one who watched the second half of this game going "wow, ray lewis has really really lost a step?" he seemed to whiff on a whole lot of tackles, including some whiffs of lendale white. (how can you miss him? he's HUGE!) If the ravens re-sign him for some absurd 5 year 30 million dollar deal i might need to reconsider my opinion of ozzie and steve.

on the other hand, suck it titans fans. once again we're mercifully free of AFC south teams in the playoffs. now if only the chargers can beat the steelers and the eagles can beat the giants. that would be spectacular! 4v6 X 2!

44
by JimZipCode (not verified) :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 4:33am

> Am i the only one who watched the second half of this game going "wow, ray lewis
> has really really lost a step?" he seemed to whiff on a whole lot of tackles,
> including some whiffs of lendale white.

Cowher said at the half that the Ravens D looked tired, and I agree with that. Not just Ray-ray, but the whole group looked half a step slow, and tired.

54
by Steve (not verified) :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 2:48pm

Ray definitely is not the sideline to sideline force he once was - he's probably an average tackler in space now. I've seen him miss a lot of running backs, and even Donovan McNabb in space this year. But he's still one of the best in the game at knowing which gap a running back is taking and filling the hole, and he'll still lay the wood if you come through his zone. He doesn't make mental mistakes and he doesn't get fooled often, so even if he's the slowest LB on the field, he's involved in most runs and short passes. Pro bowl might have been a stretch this year, but he's still a great player.

41
by Jetspete (not verified) :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 1:40am

Losing money on Tennessee today wasnt what felt bad, it was the knowledge that idiot Raven bettors won money for making a completely incorrect read. I cant wait to see DVOA's game chart and tennessee's dominance at the line of scrimmage. But i am in the camp that thought Fisher made the right decision to kick. With the backup center, can you trust the qb sneak would work? Or white, mr i cant convert a 3rd and 1 in the national title game? With the way his defense was playing, he was right to take the free three points.

The play of the game the espn talking heads are missing was the Ravens deliberate attempt to injure Chris Johnson. it worked, and that was the game. With Fisher on the CC, i hope attempts to dismember players but pulling them back when in a pile results in not a penalty, but immediate ejection from the game.

43
by JimZipCode (not verified) :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 4:32am

Was that the play where they appeared to bend Johnson in half? I didn't read that as an attempt to injure Johnson, but rather an attempt to strip the ball from him, while keeping him up so that a fumble would count (he wouldn't be down by contact). You might want to discount my opinion, I'm a Ravens fan, but that was my first reaction. Also it was Ed Reed working on Johnson, which I think makes it more likely that it was an attempt on the ball, not on Johnson's person.

I thought Johnson stayed in the game after that play? And only came out later?

45
by Lord K :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 8:10am

He went out with a bum ankle. Bending him in half was a vicious attack and deserving of a penalty, but that's not what put him out.

42
by lurking (not verified) :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 3:51am

I agree, that was a disgusting thing--the announcers commented on it at the time, and it was replayed...not even a flag, correct?

49
by narticus :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 10:52am

There was a flag - on the Titans offensive lineman who pushed the aggressors off of Johnson.

47
by Mr Shush :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 9:58am

I thought it was probably a penalty, but it didn't come close to the bush-league flagrancy of Oklahoma's attempt to twist Harvin's bad ankle when he was already down on Thursday.

Aside from the fact that I've always liked the Ravens for reasons I've never fully fathomed, this is a good result in the sense that it has to improve Schwarz's chances of getting a head coaching job this time around, which would be good for him, good for whoever hired him and good for FO.

51
by JSP (not verified) :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 11:56am

The flag on the Johnson play was actually for a different Titans lineman, Michael Stewart, that was away from the play. Just wonky officiating all the way around, all day long.

52
by NHRevsFan (not verified) :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 1:04pm

None of this has anything to do with the actual football, just what it will be like surviving the 2 week run up to the game...

Stillers-Iggles - winner gets JoePa!

Philly-Bawlmer - Cheesesteaks vs Crabcakes

Bolts - Cards - hey, it's sunny and 80, who cares how much we suck? (admittedly a low % possibility)

62
by CathyW :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 6:48pm

Stillers-Iggles: winner gets all the disgusting local sandwiches he can eat (Primanti Bros v. Pat's King of Steaks).

53
by jonnyblazin :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 2:28pm

For all those who think the Titans severely out-DVOA-ed the Ravens, the Titans had 5 fumbles, an INT, and were sacked once, while the Ravens had no fumbles, INTs, and were neve sacked.

My guess is all those negative plays mostly offset the significant yardage and 1st down advantage the Titans had DVOA-wise, but I might be wrong.

55
by Sid :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 5:09pm

Do all the underdogs win? I say no.

Anyway:
The Pittsburgh Steelers have declared FS Anthony Smith, LB Bruce Davis, QB Dennis Dixon, CB Fernando Bryant, OL Jason Capizzi, DL Orpheus Roye, DL Scott Paxson, OT Tony Hills inactive for Week 19.

The San Diego Chargers have declared LB Anthony Waters, FB Billy Latsko, QB Charlie Whitehurst, OT Corey Clark, DL Ian Scott, OG Kynan Forney, RB LaDainian Tomlinson, FB Mike Tolbert inactive for Week 19.

56
by Sid :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 5:17pm

Casserley talks funny.

18 degree windchill in pitt

baltimore very banged up for next week

59
by Telamon :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 6:08pm

Holy crap. No team with a bye progresses? Starting to look like it.

Edit: It's tied? huh? Way to choose a good time to go do laundry. I've gotta say, I'd be comforted if the Steelers won. It'd be just too crazy otherwise.

57
by Mystyc :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 6:03pm

The Steelers had a good punt return? It really is Bizarro Weekend.

60
by Sid :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 6:36pm

TMQ would call this a purist drive

61
by jonnyblazin :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 6:42pm

... but would cringe at the cowardly punt on 4th and short

63
by Telamon :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 6:51pm

Holy crap

...

Holy crap!

That fake never stood a chance. Nice feigned bad snap attempt by Berger.

64
by Rocco :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 7:39pm

So this is what BRoeth plays like when he's not hurting and running for his life.

65
by Sid :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 8:39pm

Both championship games are rematches.

Eagles massacred the Cardinals in Philly on Thanksgiving.

Pittsburgh beat Baltimore twice, once by four and once by three.

32 teams in the NFL. Five of them are birds. ~15.6%

12 playoff teams. Four of them were birds. ~33%

Four teams remaining after today. Three of them are birds. 75%

This was the first time in 37 years that three road teams won on divisional weekend.

Both #6 seeds advanced to play, and beat, the #1 seeds.

Sunday, January 18, 2008:

3 PM Eastern on FOX: Philadelphia Eagles at Arizona Cardinals. Rematch. Eagles blew out the Cardinals on Thanksgiving in Philadelphia.

6:30 PM Eastern on CBS: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers. Rematch. Steelers won both games they played, one by four points and one by three points.

66
by Theo :: Sun, 01/11/2009 - 8:43pm

Ben Roethlisberger throws with his right hand and punts whit his left leg... that surprises me.