Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
02 Jan 2009
by Bill Barnwell
For the second year in a row, the AFC Wild Card matchups are repeats of games we saw earlier in the season. Unlike last year, though, both playoff games will actually take place in the same locales as the games earlier in the season. There are also dramatic differences in either the available personnel or the schematic makeup of three of the four teams now as opposed to their earlier matchup. Only the Miami Dolphins will bring a relatively unchanged team to the season's 18th week. By breaking down the film of those games, comparing it to other games each team has played against similar teams, and combining that study with our advanced metrics at Football Outsiders, we can paint the clearest picture available of what's most likely to happen this weekend.
For those who may be visiting this site for the first time to read this preview, some explanations for our statistics. 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. 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.
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 AFC to NFC when the AFC game is over.
If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
The currency that's brought the Colts and Chargers to San Diego this Saturday night is serendipity. The playoff hopes of the 8-8 Chargers swelled and contracted this year thanks to Ed Hochuli and the Bolts' inept cousins in the AFC West, but the real moment of truth -- the Chargers' point of no return -- came in Week 15, when they needed to recover an expected onside kick to have a chance at beating the Chiefs. Their chances of succeeding were no better than one in six. Those chances were likely made slightly worse when the kick went to wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, arguably Kansas City's best player.
Instead, the ball bounced off of Bowe's chest and into the hands of Pro Bowl special teamer Kassim Osgood, who nearly left the team after demanding a trade this offseason. Instead of dealing him away, the Chargers had their best gunner situated in the one spot he needed to be in to save their season. The Chargers promptly drove down the field and scored, taking a 22-21 lead that held up after Chiefs kicker Connor Barth -- 9-for-9 on the season previously -- missed his second field goal of the game. It is not unreasonable to say that the Chargers are here and that Mike Shanahan is currently unemployed because the supremely talented and confident Bowe took his eye off the ball for a fraction of a second at precisely the wrong time.
The Colts' story also begins with an onside kick. Down 27-17 with 4:04 left in the fourth quarter against the winless Texans, the then-1-2 Colts seemingly needed an onside kick to have a shot at coming back and winning. They failed, giving the ball away to a team that had already run for 146 yards against a flailing Indianapolis defensive line. With starting quarterback Matt Schaub out with an illness, backup Sage Rosenfels was instead running the offense. On third-and-8, Rosenfels scrambled and decided to run for a first down. Instead, cornerback Marlin Jackson forced the ball out, and linebacker Gary Brackett both recovered the fumble and returned it 66 yards for an astounding touchdown.
After the Colts kicked deep, the Texans had a second chance at running the clock out. Again, they not only failed, but turned the ball over in the process; this time, defensive end Robert Mathis sacked Rosenfels, stripping him of the ball and recovering it in the process. Mathis' discovery gave the Colts the ball on the Texans 20, and after scoring two plays later and intercepting Rosenfels on the Texans' final drive, a miraculous victory was complete.
If the Colts had lost that game and nothing else had changed, they still would have made the playoffs. But if the Colts had started 1-3, can we assume that nothing else would have changed?
Each of these teams were given gifts better than anything you or I got for the holiday season. Legends and legacies may be forged out of the carelessness and missteps of Bowe and Rosenfels. Players will be granted or stripped of mystiques they haven't earned. Even players and coaches can add to the lore. "I thought we had that passion at the end," Tony Dungy said of their win over the Texans. Philip Rivers commented after the Chiefs game that, "The way we’ve bounced back these past two weeks in our division and won says a lot about our guys."
What says a lot more about the Colts and the Chargers is what they've done in the 16 games they've played this year, including the Colts' 23-20 victory over the Chargers in Week 12. Instead of narratives of questionable inception that will be thrown away and forgotten after this weekend's outcome, we'll be looking at a season's worth of performance to break down what's most likely to happen this Sunday.
You may be familiar with the Colts offense, which has been fantastic long enough to actually become ironically fantastic. So don't be surprised when you're walking around the most recently gentrified areas of your nearest big cities and see the youths sporting Anthony Gonzalez jerseys -- it's not because they're Lil' Ronnie fans.
There are some changes in how the Colts employ their personnel this year, though. The Colts are relying more on Gonzalez in the slot, particularly on third down, where his 63.9% DVOA tops all receivers with 25 targets or more. He runs the same sort of route tree that Steve Smith of the Giants does, just with better speed and hands. Against the Colts' base three-WR set, the Chargers went to a 3-3-5 look and used 2008 first-round pick Antoine Cason as the nickel back, lined up against Gonzalez in the slot. He was not up to the task, as Gonzalez caught three of the six passes thrown to him with Cason in coverage, for a total of 55 yards and three first downs.
Gonzalez's presence has shifted Dallas Clark back into playing as a tight end in both name and locale, as opposed to the slot receiver he primarily was in 2007. In this role, Clark may be called on to block Chargers outside linebackers Jyles Tucker and Shaun Phillips in one-on-one situations, the latter of which is a rough matchup for the Colts.
Phillips is the primary pass rusher on a defense that's fallen from 12th to 20th in Adjusted Sack Rate from a year ago, primarily due to the season-long absence of Shawne Merriman. The absence of a pass rush led to the departure of much-maligned defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell in midseason, with former Bears DC Ron Rivera taking his place. Rivera was told to improve the pass rush, but that hasn't happened. With Cottrell, the Chargers ranked 17th with an ASR of 6.3 percent; since Rivera took over, they are 24th with an ASR of 4.9 percent. Four of the team's 11 sacks in that timeframe came against Ben Roethlisberger; they sacked Manning once (and had only one quarterback hit) in their first matchup, and even that was recorded by our game charter as a coverage sack.
The glimmer of hope for Chargers fans thinking that the D have a better time getting to Manning on Sunday is the situation on the Colts' offensive line, which has been ravaged by injuries all season. When the two teams played in October, Colts center Jeff Saturday strained his calf during the game against the Chargers, leaving rookie Jamey Richard to play arguably the most important position on the Colts' offensive line, thanks to Peyton Manning's ability/propensity to change his protection scheme on the fly. The good news is that Saturday should play the entire game this time around, but both Richard and center/guard Mike Pollak will probably miss out thanks to ankle injuries. Pollak, who starts at right guard, will likely be replaced by Dan Federkeil.
On the other hand, the Chargers will have defensive end Luis Castillo, who missed the first Chargers-Colts game. Castillo's a stout defender at the point of attack, and is more difficult to drive off the ball than backup Jacques Cesaire. That advantage is magnified because of the Colts' persistent usage of the no-huddle offense; without the ability to substitute liberally on defense, a team's base defensive package sees more snaps than it would otherwise. Although it would be preferable to be able to sub in Cesaire and defensive tackle Ryon Bingham on the line, having 55 snaps of Castillo is much better than 55 snaps of Cesaire. The Chargers worked a lot to try and confuse Manning and the offensive line in their first matchup, including persistent shifting of their front three after they touched down to try and muddle responsibilities and hide where the blitz was coming from. The Chargers blitzed five or more on 20 of 49 dropbacks against the Colts.
The Chargers will present a relatively simple front to Manning. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie will line up on the left side, with Quentin Jammer on the right. As yet another sign that he's lost a step, the Chargers played press coverage on Marvin Harrison for most of the game regardless of who was on him, with Reggie Wayne getting a seven-to-nine yard cushion on most plays. As mentioned earlier, Gonzalez presented significant issues for Cason in the slot, with the Chargers eventually giving him help with bracket coverage as the game went along. The Colts will use plenty of pick plays, and Gonzalez's touchdown in the first Chargers encounter came with much help from an uncalled Wayne pick. Indianapolis also likes to match Joseph Addai out of the slot against slower linebackers, so when the Chargers bring in Matt Wilhelm as a cover linebacker in passing situations, expect the Colts to motion Addai out to the slot and use him in similarly-styled pick plays.
Because of the number of different offensive line combinations the Colts have used this year, it's difficult to project how their running game will perform in the playoffs. One place we'd expect the Chargers to have the advantage is inside the red zone; there, the Colts' ground game is 26th in the league, while the Chargers' run defense is 12th. The Chargers also have the second-best goal-to-go defense in the league, which becomes even more interesting when you consider that they move to a Cover-2 look that close to the end zone. For Rivera, who coached a Cover-2 defense in Chicago, the team's success in that area could foretell a shift to the Cover-2 across the rest of the field in the future.
What was once an elite running game fell into mediocrity in 2008, as the Chargers' rush offense DVOA fell out of the top 11 for the first time since LaDainian Tomlinson's rookie year of 2001. Much of the national blame has been cast on Tomlinson, who's struggled during the first half of the year with turf toe. As with many running backs, too much of the credit for Tomlinson's success and too much of the blame for his decline have been placed upon the back and not his line.
It's not injuries in the case of the Chargers' line, but instead performance degradation across the line. Left tackle Marcus McNeill hasn't lived up to the level of performance he exhibited as a rookie (establishing a trend that Joe Thomas followed this year, one Ryan Clady would do well to avoid). Center Nick Hardwick might still be struggling with a toe injury that he had surgery on after the 2007 offseason, because he has little explosion off the line and labors to get any push. Right guard Mike Goff is a lame duck who knows it, and six days away from turning 33, he's almost certainly lost a step. His inability to get to the second level and pull when necessary haven't helped issues, but the real problem is right tackle Jeromey Clary, a guard masquerading at tackle who had a nightmare of a game against Robert Mathis in Week 12. Clary allowed Mathis two sacks and was embarassed by Mathis' array of spin moves and inside stunts on multiple run plays. Getting Clary help against Mathis is essential, which could mean a lot of two tight end sets with Brandon Manumaleuna in the game. The Chargers also split Antonio Gates wide on a handful of plays against the Colts; they could choose to do that more often to try and stretch their linebackers out and create space in the running game.
Tomlinson also lost fullback Lorenzo Neal this offseason, who played a major role in creating space for Tomlinson at the line of scrimmage. While Neal is off excelling in Baltimore (his pancake against Bradie James for Le'Ron McClain's touchdown against Dallas was one of the best blocks of the year), the Chargers have struggled to replace him. Fullback Mike Tolbert might be faster to the line than Neal, but he doesn't square up his man anywhere near as reliably as Neal, resulting in slipped blocks and fewer lanes for Tomlinson to run through. Backup Jacob Hester is more of the jack-of-all-trades fullback as opposed to a blocking back, making him a poor fit for the role.
Instead, the Chargers will attempt to isolate different Colts in favorable matchups and take advantage of them. The first target of any team facing the Colts is cornerback Tim Jennings, filling in for the crocked Marlin Jackson at corner. At 5'8" and 185 pounds, Jennings is one of the faster Colts on the roster, but he struggles mightily with taller receivers. That makes 6'4" Vincent Jackson an absolute mismatch and even 5'11" Chris Chambers, who has one of the best verticals in the NFL, is at a significant advantage on the deep ball. Jennings will get help over the top, but that will open up opportunities for Antonio Gates underneath.
Gates may also have more chances to make plays on Sunday because of the Colts' situation at linebacker. With middle linebacker Gary Brackett out, outside linebacker Freddy Keiaho will move to the inside, where he'll also have to play in nickel and dime situations. Keiaho is having a rough year in coverage already, averaging 7.5 yards per pass according to our game charters, up from 4.4 yards per pass a year ago. His move also moves Tyjuan Hagler into Keiaho's spot on the strong side, with (the other) Buster Davis backing them up. Brackett's been arguably the team's best defender this year, so missing him in this game is a disappointing blow for the defense.
The other target in the passing game will be free safety Antoine Bethea, who moves into the slot when the opposition goes three-wide. The Chargers immediately recognized Bethea as a target and sent Malcom Floyd deep twice in the first quarter on a corner route and a go route in man coverage against Bethea, before the Colts started giving Bethea help. Floyd will be questionable for the game after a collapsed lung a couple of weeks ago; the Chargers could very well line up Sproles in the slot if Floyd can't go.
Strong safety Bob Sanders missed the Week 12 encounter with his knee injury, but he'll be in the lineup on Sunday. Interestingly, the Colts' defensive DVOA with Sanders in the lineup (4.0%) was only slightly better than it was when he was sitting out (6.5%). A lot of that, though, has to do with the -65.1% DVOA the Colts' defense put up in their dominant win over Joe Flacco and the Ravens in Week 7; take that game out, and the difference goes from 2.5% to 11.5%. Sanders could very well be pesticide for Darren Sproles, the change-of-pace back who's stayed healthy for the season despite seeing an increased role in the offense following Michael Turner's departure. Not enough screens were run against the Colts this year to have a definitive sample of how they do against them with and without Sanders, but screens are exactly the sort of plays Sanders is programmed to break up. There, his undersized nature actually represents a positive, as its easier for him to sift through trash and get to the ballcarrier, while his elite speed and football instincts help recognize screens while they're developing. With Sanders in the lineup, the chances of the Chargers busting a huge play on a screen to Sproles are almost certainly diminished, if not extinguished entirely.
After having the worst special teams in the league in 2007, the Colts were merely very bad this season. Although they were above-average on both kicks and punts, their return units were awful. Recently acquired Najeh Davenport has enjoyed some success on kick returns, so expect to see him back there this week. Your feelings on Adam Vinatieri, clutch kicker are yours and yours alone; if you still believe that there's something special about Vinatieri, no amount of data will convince you otherwise, and if you don't, well, we don't need to tell you anymore that a good portion of his clutchiness is opportunity.
Sproles has done a good job as the primary return man, ranking seventh in the league on kick returns and 18th on punt reurns. If the Chargers are desperate for a return touchdown, they'll put Antonio Cromartie with him. Nate Kaeding has profiled as a below-average kicker this year on both field goals and kickoffs.
This is the most evenly-matched game on paper in the first round, with the Colts' marginal advantage in DVOA mitigated by the Chargers' home-field advantage. That was borne out in Week 12, with the Colts winning 23-20 on an Adam Vinatieri field goal as time expired.
DVOA isn't a perfect stat, though, and one thing it doesn't control for throughout the season is injury. Indy's spent most of their year without Sanders and a good portion of it without Saturday, two of the seven best players on their top-heavy roster. The Colts are simply a significantly better team with them in the lineup.
The argument in the past is that the Chargers were uniquely designed to match up well against the Colts, but that's not the case anymore. The advantage the Chargers had at the line of scrimmage has vanished; in the passing game, Sanders matches up well against Sproles and Tomlinson in the screen game, and the Colts' Tampa-2 is famous for keeping the play in front of them while limiting deep completions. The Colts had only nine completions of 30 yards or more against them this year, the second-best figure in football. Unless the Chargers' offensive line of 2006 steps onto the field Saturday, the Colts seem like the more likely victor.
If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
Two unlikely playoff teams square off in Miami for the second time this year on Sunday. In Week 7, neither the 2-3 Ravens nor the 2-3 Dolphins were seen as playoff contenders. After the Ravens' victory over the Dolphins, the two teams combined to go 17-3 the rest of the way, earning playoff spots on the season's final day. Each team employs a gimmick offense, with the Dolphins running the now-ubiquitous Wildcat and the Ravens using an unbalanced line, bringing in an extra tackle for added muscle on 31 percent of snaps this season (according to our friends at NFL Matchup).
The place where these teams differ dramatically is how they've been affected by injury. Despite Miami's manipulation of the injury report this year (they listed nary a single player until Week 6), tracking their injuries by number of games missed by projected starters reveals that they're the healthiest team in football, losing only Greg Camarillo and Justin Smiley for any length of time. Meanwhile, the Ravens were the most-injured team in football. They had 50 different players appear on the injury report at one point or another in 2008. Six projected starters missed eight games or more. By Week 8, three of the four starters in the secondary were out of action, and the only player left (Ed Reed) was questionable. It's a testament to the work of the brilliant Ravens front office and rookie head coach John Harbaugh that the Ravens still managed to make the playoffs.
When the Ravens played the Dolphins in Week 7, they weren't yet using the unbalanced line anywhere near the amount they have used it in recent weeks. That probably owed something to the fact that Adam Terry -- who often serves as the extra offensive tackle in the unbalanced line -- was hurt and didn't return until Week 9.
The chess match that took place throughout the day when the Ravens were on offense was how Baltimore would account for Dolphins weakside linebacker Joey Porter, who was in the midst of a remarkable comeback season after being returned to the same side of the field he played in Pittsburgh. That would nominally put Porter against second-year left tackle Jared Gaither, a mammoth even by the position's standards. Gaither's talented and has had a solid season, but he's a bad matchup one-on-one against Porter. As a result, the pre-snap motion of nearly every play was to account for Porter's whereabouts. Often, the Ravens would start tight end Todd Heap on the opposite side of the field from Porter, forcing him to commit to a hashmark before the snap, only to motion Heap to Porter's side of the ball. That gave them the option to use Heap in a double-team, have him chip Porter, or even block him one-on-one, something Heap did with varying levels of success. Another option the team used was to motion out fullback Lorenzo Neal and have him engage Porter at the line. Neal was responsible for a blown block on one of Porter's two sacks on the day, with the other coming off of a twist designed to use Porter as a decoy.
NFL Matchup showed a play with Porter last week that was very similar to the Giants zone blitz I diagrammed in Walkthrough last week, where the fearsome pass rusher (in this case, Porter) drops back into coverage on one side and the team overloads on the other side of the field. Porter's first sack was a play where the opposite happened.
|Figure 1: Porter Sack vs. Ravens|
Here's your standard twist mixed in with a blitzing defensive back that rookie quarterback Joe Flacco fails to recognize and adjust his protection for. As a result, blocking back Ray Rice is on the wrong side of the formation, leaving three men to block four players. Porter (55) goes all the way up to the line to center Jason Brown, while defensive lineman Philip Merling (97) twists behind Porter to occupy Gaither. Middle linebacker Channing Crowder (52) shoots the B-Gap between Gaither and left guard Ben Grubbs (66), occupying the latter, leaving cornerback Will Allen free to come off of Demetrius Williams (87) on a blitz. Had Flacco seen Allen coming off his man and preparing to blitz, a simple sight adjustment would've allowed for a big gain. Instead, Gaither tries to block Allen and Merling and gets neither. Both go free, Flacco has to ditch the pocket, and runs right into Porter -- who started all this -- disengaging himself from Brown. Bad scene, everybody's fault.
To see how they prepared to play a defense similarly weighted towards one elite pass rusher, I watched the Ravens' Week 16 game against the Cowboys, who play DeMarcus Ware on the weak side. The Ravens varied their protections from play-to-play depending upon what their personnel setup was. When Terry was on the bench, the Ravens did a lot of the same stuff they did to Porter, with Heap starting out on one side and motioning over, or Neal motioning out as an H-Back to block Ware at the line. On one particularly noticeable run play, they had Neal line up as the fullback in the I-Formation and run away from the play to block Ware outside left tackle, despite the fact that the play was being run behind right guard. The threat of Ware's backside pursuit was that strong, and Porter's no different.
With Terry in there, the Ravens often lined up the converted tackle against Ware one-on-one. This started off disasterously, as Ware blew by Terry early in the game for a sack, forcing a fumble in the process. After that, though, Terry did a pretty decent job when Ware wasn't dropping back into coverage. Terry ran a couple of ineffectual patterns to try and pretend he was a tight end, but Ware was unconcerned.
Expect the Ravens to run a similar style of offense, with a lot of the unbalanced line and Terry matched up directly across from Porter. If the Dolphins choose to move Porter away from Terry and to the strong side, it puts their best player in a position where he's ineffectual, perhaps an even larger advantage to the Ravens.
It's possible that one of these teams could win the battle of Joey Porter and still lose the war, but it's not likely. So much of the Dolphins' defense is based upon Porter and his ability to get a pass rush and/or attract blockers in the process. While Dolphins corners Will Allen and Andre Goodman have had a superficially better year, a lot of that is the improved pass rush as compared to a year ago. If Flacco can identify where the blitz is coming from and get time in the pocket, the Miami secondary is of little concern.
The Ravens will almost assuredly use a combination of Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain to run the ball, as Ray Rice is still questionable. McClain is among the league's best third-down backs, with a success rate of 62 percent that puts him sixth amongst rushers with 20 or more carries on third and fourth down. The Ravens will employ him as either the upback or the tailback in the I-Formation, handing him the ball as the fullback on misdirection and dive plays, while using him as a standard halfback with Neal in front of him. McClain's also a significantly better pass protector than Rice or McGahee, so expect him to see more of the field than anyone else. The Dolphins have a solid, disciplined front seven led by Dallas refugees Jason Ferguson and Akin Ayodele; former college middle linebacker Matt Roth now plays outside as an Anthony Spencer clone after being drafted as a defensive end. The Dolphins will liberally incorporate impact players from the bench like linebacker Charlie Anderson, the aforementioned Merling, and former Titans defensive lineman Randy Starks.
To start, if you're unfamiliar with Miami's Wildcat scheme, check out Doug Farrar's initial review of the Wildcat and this week's column, which looks at three Wildcat plays the Dolphins ran against the Ravens.
There's one thing Doug didn't mention in his excellent analysis -- namely, that Ed Reed wasn't on the field. In this game, Reed was the only member of the Ravens' starting secondary in the lineup. Dawan Landry and Samari Rolle were both inactive, while Chris McAlister had been benched after the Colts game and was the nickelback. Reed himself was questionable with a "thigh" injury, but started and played for most of the game. When he was on the field, he spent much of his time shadowing Ronnie Brown. On several plays, Brown started in the slot and motioned towards center as the ball was about to be snapped, giving him the opportunity to either receive a handoff from Chad Pennington with a head of steam or run a play fake. Reed followed Brown from one side of the field to the other, indicating his responsibility was with the Dolphins' star back. Miami took advantage of this, running Ricky Williams through the hole vacated by Reed's departure out of the slot for a first down.
There were several points where Reed came off the field. On one particular series, the Dolphins saw that Reed had gone off and moved into the Wildcat immediately for consecutive plays. When Reed came back on, their work in the Wildcat ended. Doug was correct to say that the Wildcat would struggle to launch against such a fundamentally sound defense, but that's only reinforced by the presence of Reed.
The Ravens play a 3-4 defense with a Cover-1 shell, meaning that free safety Jim Leonhard sits in centerfield and makes sure no one gets past him. A career special teamer who's replacing the injured Landry, Leonhard is the weakest link in the Ravens defense. While his instincts are good, he's only 5'8" and doesn't offer enough in the way of deep support to make the Ravens' cornerbacks feel very comfortable. The Dolphins weren't able to get Ted Ginn downfield for a big gain in Week 7, but it would be surprising if Chad Pennington didn't take a couple of shots deep at Leonhard if Ginn can get past his man. Expect the Dolphins to try and motion Ginn behind fellow wideout Davone Bess to prevent the Ravens from bumping him at the line. The Dolphins will also run a lot of trips formations, where they'll line up Ginn, Bess, and tight end Anthony Fasano on one side of the field, forcing the Ravens to adjust their defense accordingly. The Dolphins went after cornerback Frank Walker as often as possible, but Walker's been demoted to nickelback since Samari Rolle came back, and the Dolphins really only have two wide receivers at this point. If Miami can get Ginn isolated in the slot against Walker, the Ravens might as well beat up the ref and take a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty before the snap.
The Dolphins' running game has suffered since left guard Justin Smiley broke his right leg against the Rams in Week 13. Since Miami introduced the Wildcat in Week 3, their rushing DVOA with Smiley in the lineup was 8.1%; without him, it's down to 1.9%. Backup Andy Alleman will mostly draw Trevor Pryce, which is a matchup the Ravens will hope to exploit by twisting Pryce around and sending Bart Scott where Pryce once was. The Dolphins have vicious run blockers at either tackle spot in Jake Long and Vernon Carey, but even they'll have their hands full against Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson, respectively. For those of you interested in watching potentially epochal line battles, watch center Samson Satele against nose tackle Haloti Ngata, arguably the Ravens' best player.
While not as supremely awful as the Vikings' embarassing special teams play, both the Dolphins and Ravens have little to be proud of in the kicking game. Of the five categories (scoring plays, kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, and punt returns), these teams are above-average in exactly one spot -- the Ravens have accrued a league-best 20.7 points of value on punts. Ravens punter Sam Koch set franchise records in both gross and net yards per punt. Koch could change field position with a big punt, but otherwise, anything important on special teams will probably be a mistake by one team rather than a nice play by the other.
Baltimore is a significantly better team than Miami by DVOA. They're healthier than they were in Week 7, while Miami is worse off. Their offense has a logical plan for moving the ball downfield without Flacco turning the ball over too frequently (occasionally, it succeeds). Miami's primary offensive weaponry has already failed against its stout defense, whose mix of speed and gap discipline are being produced by Glaxo as Wildcat antidote.
The Dolphins' chances at victory rest upon Chad Pennington dramatically outplaying Flacco, with the turnover battle swinging Miami's way. Their best chance to make that happen involves confusing Flacco before the snap and hoping that they can get there before Flacco gets the ball out. If the Dolphins can force Flacco to put the ball on the grass or in their hands, a few short fields and a return for a touchdown could propel the Dolphins to an unlikely victory. Otherwise, the Ravens should be able to manhandle the Dolphins.
114 comments, Last at 04 Jan 2009, 11:27pm by Megamanic