Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
22 Jan 2010
by Bill Barnwell
Hubris can be a funny thing sometimes.
Both the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Jets' seasons have been marked by hubris. For the Colts, it was the hubris projected onto Bill Belichick's "This is a tricky gray area" decision on fourth-and-2 in Week 10 that ended up handing the Colts a go-ahead touchdown on a silver platter. Weeks later, it was their own hubris that cost them their shot at a perfect season. Under direction from general manager Bill Polian, head coach Jim Caldwell removed Peyton's Army early in the third quarter of the Week 16 game against these Jets, saving them for an impending playoff run while believing in the ability of a second-string offense and defense to hold a slim lead over the Jets.
The Jets, on the other hand, virtually run on hubris. Fellow rookie head coach Rex Ryan seems compelled at times to be the football manifestation of New York City; larger than life, with a legion of foot soldiers running at terrifying speeds. Ryan will get his own section when The Year In Quotes pops up in Football Outsiders Almanac 2010, but plenty of coaches are good quotes; few call themselves the favorite to win the entire shebang as a Wild Card, or map out their team's playoff itinerary down to the victory parade before Week 18, though.
Of course, hubris is confidence or swagger until you lose. By remaining alive, neither team has had to apologize for believing in themselves. That changes Sunday.
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.
In the charts we've included on this page, games where teams sat their starters are colored differently and are not included in the trendlines. In addition, we've calculated weighted DVOA without those "sit starters" games for those respective teams, and have included those numbers in this article. Note that each team's chart includes a pair of dots for Week 16; the dot that's marked a different color and not included in the trendline is that unit's DVOA after Peyton Manning departed the game in the third quarter.
Also note that for the conference championship previews, we've done two charts for each team: one for offense, one for defense. Because defensive DVOA is opposite of offensive DVOA, the defensive charts are flipped upside-down -- the higher dots still represent better games.
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The Week 16 matchup between these two teams ended in a 29-15 Jets victory, but that final score bears no resemblance to the game that actually took place in Indianapolis that day. It would be more accurate to suggest that the Colts won 3/5ths of a game, 15-10, and that the Jets shut out the Colts' second unit with a 19-0 victory during the other 2/5ths of the game. Of course, the NFL is strictly binary until that fateful day when the games are actually played on paper and writers in their parents' basements worldwide can finally embrace their stereotype.
DVOA bears out those scorelines; if anything, it suggests that the Colts should've been leading by more than just five points when Manning and company departed. Here's a look at DVOA within that game, separating the game into two "halves," with the point of delineation coming immediately after the failed two-point conversion that followed Donald Brown's one-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Of course, DVOA is far from Olmec status, and that's where some context and game tape analysis comes in. While the Jets will bring roughly the same lineup to Indianapolis this weekend, the Colts were without five key players: Cornerback Jerraud Powers, linebacker Clint Session, left tackle Charles Johnson, wideout Pierre Garcon, and defensive end Robert Mathis. Fellow defensive end Dwight Freeney had two sacks, but played almost exclusively as a situational pass rusher. And that was before the bench got a lot more expensive. All of those players besides Powers will start and/or see significant action on Sunday. Those absences affected how both teams played in Week 16, and we'll make a note of how that should change Sunday's matchup where relevant.
Finally, if you haven't already, read Doug Farrar's insightful Cover-3 on the Colts and Jets before you go any further. Doug covers some of the important concepts about the these two teams and their rush schemes, which adds a lot of context to what we cover below.
Whether it was because Mark Sanchez stood under center, because Robert Mathis was out and Dwight Freeney was mostly resting, or a combination of those things, the Colts came after Sanchez in their opening matchup. Sanchez was met by five or more rushers on 10 of his 25 dropbacks (40 percent), yielding six hurries and two sacks. (For more on the Colts' new rush-happy tendencies, check out this piece from Thursday's New York Times by Judy Battista, which incorporates Game Charting data.)
Even if Freeney and Mathis go without a sack, their presence in the lineup will undoubtedly impact the Jets' offensive scheme. Sanchez had just five blockers around on 11 of his 25 dropbacks; with both Mathis and Freeney in on most snaps, expect to see more of tight end Ben Hartsock and fullback Tony Richardson as pass protectors.
To keep Sanchez out of trouble and create easier reads for his rookie quarterback, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer loves to use play-action and send Sanchez out on bootlegs, where he almost always has the same route combination to look at: Tight end Dustin Keller mirrors Sanchez's motion with an out or a crossing pattern, while wide receiver Braylon Edwards goes deep with a double move or a go route. It's a simple read: If Edwards doesn't have a step, hit Keller for the short gain; if Keller's playing the Bengals, he runs for 40 yards after the catch.
Running bootlegs against the Colts, though, is a good way to get your quarterback killed. (This goes double if it's Brad Smith.) Freeney and Mathis will run the occasional twist to get isolated against a guard and keep offensive linemen honest, but they're paid to get around the opposing offensive tackle with their speed and beat them to the quarterback. If they're taking their usual route to the quarterback and Sanchez goes on bootleg after a play-action, he's going to basically run right into Freeney or Mathis. The Jets can slow that style of pass rush with screens and by running draws into the D-gaps vacated by Freeney and Mathis, the latter of which was an effective tactic for them in Week 16.
With that in mind, while the return of two star defensive ends normally results in fewer blitzes and more defenders dropped into coverage, don't be surprised if that's not the case here. The Colts want Sanchez to stay in the pocket, where he has to read their entire defense and is more likely to make mistakes: 11 of Sanchez's 18 interceptions this year were passes thrown from the pocket. Furthermore, while left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and right tackle Damien Woody combined to allow only three sacks this year, Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca allowed a whopping six. Expect the Colts to bring pressure up the A-gaps again and through the middle of the Jets' line, getting in Sanchez's passing lanes even when they don't hit him.
Perhaps in part as a response to the pressure up the middle, the Jets ran the ball outside repeatedly before the exodus pulled Freeney and middle linebacker Gary Brackett from the game. Some of it was misdirection, including a reverse to David Clowney that was eaten alive for a drive-killing loss of 14 yards, but Thomas Jones was constantly trying to push his carries outside. Logic would stand that such a move would be a bad idea against the speedy, aggressive Colts, but Indy's actually better against runs up the middle (21st) than they are to left tackle (29th), right tackle (28th), or right end (31st). Here's one where we're going to ignore the numbers, though, and suggest that the Jets are better off running up the middle and getting right guard Brandon Moore to the second level; if he can seal off Brackett regularly, the Jets should be able to run the ball very effectively. Shonn Greene had a very nice day against the Colts, especially when the second-string came in, but offensive coordinators tend to favor veteran backs as pass blockers. Don't be surprised if Jones sees more action than his playoff numbers deserve.
Make no bones about it: Regardless of what the voters said earlier this month, the best individual offensive and defensive players in football will be lining up in Lucas Oil Stadium this Sunday. Even more interestingly, though, both of them have something to prove; both Peyton Manning and Darrelle Revis had subpar games when these teams met in December.
Let's start with Revis, who was matched up against Reggie Wayne on virtually every snap, most often in man coverage. Wayne was thrown eight passes before leaving the game; outside of his final catch, which came against the grain of a soft zone coverage, Revis was clearly responsible for Wayne on each target. Those seven remaining passes only resulted in two catches for 22 yards, but those paltry numbers are not because Revis shut down Wayne; in fact, Wayne should have caught six passes, and had a reasonable shout for all seven, with two touchdowns in the process. The reason why Wayne didn't have that huge game becomes apparent when we break down each play.
It's not fair to say that Revis had a bad game against Wayne, but it certainly wasn't up to his lofty standards. Beyond the fact that Wayne is simply a great receiver, it makes sense that Revis would struggle against him. While Revis has great athleticism, timing, and ball skills, what makes him the best corner in football is his ability to read and anticipate the routes of opposing receivers in real-time, thanks to significant film study. With the retirement of Marvin Harrison, there's probably not a better receiver in the league at disguising his routes and making cuts than Wayne, which limits Revis's ability to maintain tight coverage all the way downfield. There were opportunities for big plays against Revis in single coverage during Week 16; don't be surprised if the Colts hit on one of those big plays this Sunday.
With the Jets giving Revis some help over the top in Rhodes, there were ample opportunities on the other side of the field for Austin Collie to take advantage of Lito Sheppard. With Pierre Garcon injured, Collie was the full-time flanker and had a big day while Manning was still in the game, catching four catches for 88 yards while also drawing two pass interference penalties for 37 yards. Sheppard was in coverage on six of those eight passes. With the Jets playing mostly man coverage with one deep safety, the Colts used Collie on drag routes, getting him 12-15 yards downfield before cutting and crossing the hashmarks. Sheppard has no prayer of covering Collie by himself for that long. When the Jets started giving Sheppard help over the top with Rhodes, the Colts ran the same route with Dallas Clark against nickel cornerback Dwight Lowery. Clark was another bundle of frustration for the Colts in the first matchup; Manning had him open against safety Eric Smith for what could have been a touchdown pass on a go route, but overthrew him.
It's pretty obvious by now that Manning had a bad game. Whether it was timing issues caused by the Jets' aggressiveness or simply an off night, Manning left a half-dozen big plays on the field. Those go down in DVOA as mere incompletions, but the Colts could have scored 21 points in the first half instead of the nine they actually put up. (An extra point in the first half was blocked.) It seems ill-advised for Rex Ryan to hope that Manning will have a similarly poor showing this time around.
It wasn't the best game for Ryan, either; his vaunted blitz packages had little impact on Manning, despite the absence of left tackle Charles Johnson. Manning dropped back 25 times, and while the Jets rushed five or more 14 times, all they had to show for the blitzes were three hurries and one quarterback knockdown.
Will the Jets get to know Manning a little better on Sunday? If history's any indicator, absolutely not. Since 2005, when Ryan took over as the Ravens' defensive coordinator, he's faced Peyton Manning five times. Manning's dropped back 141 times against those industrious Ryan defenses ... and been sacked three times. And one of those sacks came when Manning tripped over Jeff Saturday's feet taking the exchange from center. (Note that the 2006 playoff game between the two teams was not broken down by our Game Charters, and so hurry, hit, and blitz data is not available for that game.)
|Table 2: Manning vs. Rex Ryan|
Manning has had a mix of good (2007, 2008) and bad (2006) games against Ryan-authored defenses, but it would be totally out of character for a Ryan defense to materially affect Manning with pressure. In fact, the Jets' best strategy might be to rush three or four on most plays, attempt to get overloads on one side of the line, and drop seven or eight defenders into coverage. That would involve Ryan swallowing his pride and admitting to himself that his blitz schemes don't work very well against Manning, though, and the likelihood of that happening seems slim. Hubris, remember?
One place Ryan can rest comfortably is in power situations. Although the Colts were an underrated offense running in short yardage this year, the Jets stuffed them on four of their five carries with a yard to go (including one stretch of three consecutive plays, although a stuff on fourth down was nullified by a Bart Scott tripping penalty) and twice on carries from the four-yard line. The Colts' lone conversion in short yardage was a one-yard touchdown run by Donald Brown that saw him break two tackles on the interior before breaking to the outside and scoring. Those seven carries went for a combined zero yards.
Brad Smith returned the opening kick of the second half for a 106-yard touchdown in Week 16; of course, if you return the ball from six yards deep in your own end zone, you pretty much need to do something big if you don't want to get yelled at. Smith went untouched for 70 yards or so, thanks to overpursuit by the Colts' coverage units and great blocking by the Jets. It's tempting to chalk up the great blocking to Vernon Gholston, but he's not even a good special teams guy. The Jets also blocked an extra point, which ended up being a three-point swing when the Colts subsequently went for two and failed.
Over the course of the season, the Colts have been above-average on kickoffs. That's thanks to the leg of Pat McAfee, who kicks off, punts, and holds for Matt Stover. Stover hasn't made a field goal from beyond 50 yards since 2006, so don't expect any booming field goals from him. T.J. Rushing has been putrid on punt returns, and Chad Simpson's an inconsistent return man.
The Jets will have the advantage on special teams. Smith's actually been worse than Lowery outside of the Colts' touchdown, but they're both blessed with good coverage units in front of them. Jerricho Cotchery also enjoys their company on punt returns, where he's a step ahead of Jim Leonhard. Kicker Jay Feely and punter Steve Weatherford are nothing to write home about.
As we mentioned in Quick Reads, field goal kickers are 0-for-5 against the Jets in the playoffs. The last time opposing kickers missed five consecutive field goals against a team was in 2001.
It was easy to construct a winning narrative for the Jets in each of their first two playoff games; they had a defense that was uniquely suited, stylistically, for stopping the Bengals and the Chargers. The Colts are a pass-happy team, just like the Chargers, but if Rex Ryan really had a wrinkle to get consistent pressure on Peyton Manning, wouldn't it have come out by now? You don't save the money plays this long.
As tempting as it is to favor the hot Wild Card team considering what's happened in recent postseasons, don't compare apples to oranges; compare apples to apples. The Colts dominated the Jets before removing Manning and company in Week 16, with a far superior DVOA that doesn't even consider injuries or how many near-misses the Colts' offense had. The margin of victory for the Jets last time around was 14 points; they scored a defensive touchdown and a special teams touchdown, neither of which have any predicative value going forward. Barring an absolute meltdown by Manning, the Jets are going to need one of each again to make it to the Super Bowl.
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.
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 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).
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."
All stats except for WEIGHTED DVOA are regular season only, unless noted.
58 comments, Last at 24 Jan 2010, 2:37pm by Dan