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22 Jan 2010

NFC Conference Championship Preview

by Aaron Schatz

For most of the 2009 season, it seemed assured that we would see the New Orleans Saints and the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game. Then both teams stumbled in the final weeks of the season, New Orleans losing their final three games and Minnesota losing three of four before blowing out the Giants in Week 17. Green Bay, Dallas, and Philadelphia all looked like hotter teams going into the playoffs, and the NFC bracket looked like a crapshoot.

Well, so much for that idea. Here we are in the NFC Championship, with the Saints and Vikings. The Vikings didn't turn out to be the only team standing between the Saints and the Super Bowl, but they did turn out to be the last team standing between the Saints and the Super Bowl. Can they overcome the Saints' home-field advantage and book a trip to Miami? Let's take a look.

The conference championship previews include two "week-to-week" 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. On the New Orleans charts, the Week 17 game against Carolina where the Saints sat their starters is a different color, and is not included in the trendlines. The weighted DVOA numbers also do not include Week 17 games where various teams sat their starters, but they do include the playoffs. All other numbers are regular-season only unless noted.

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 NFC Championship preview is a bit more stats-based than our AFC Championship preview, since there wasn't a regular-season meeting of these two teams that gives us a chance to analyze tape.



Vikings on Offense
  MIN OFF NO DEF
DVOA 15.2% (9) 1.3% (14)
WEI DVOA 16.2% (10) 0.4% (14)
PASS 44.0% (4) -4.1% (9)
RUSH -3.8% (23) 7.7% (29)
RED ZONE 5.8% (12) -37.1% (1)


Saints on Offense
  NO OFF MIN DEF
DVOA 27.6% (2) 1.7% (15)
WEI DVOA 33.1% (1) -2.4% (11)
PASS 43.1% (5) 15.2% (22)
RUSH 17.5% (1) -18.0% (1)
RED ZONE 34.6% (2) -22.8% (7)


Special Teams
  MIN NO
DVOA 4.2% (3) -2.8% (28)
MIN kickoff -6.3 (27) 7.0 (7)
NO kickoff 19.3 (2) 1.2 (16)
MIN punts 0.5 (21) -7.8 (30)
NO punts 3.7 (13) -7.7 (29)
FG/XP 7.7 (4) -9.2 (28)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL

New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams did a great job of improving the New Orleans defense this year, and for a while it looked like the Saints would join the Broncos on the list of most-improved defenses of the DVOA Era. However, except for a two-game stretch against Tampa Bay and New England, the Saints have not been as strong on defense since their Week 5 bye. There are two reasons for this. First, they suffered big injuries in the secondary in the second half of the year. Second, teams discovered that the Saints' strong pass defense hid a huge weakness against the run, and they began to run against the Saints more, even when losing.

The New Orleans defense is built much like the Indianapolis defense of a few years ago. Not when it comes to playcalling -- Gregg Williams and Tony Dungy are polar opposites when it comes to blitz strategy. But the overall idea is the same. As long as the powerful Saints offense can get a big lead in the second half, the run defense problems are masked. The Saints pass rush can spend the second half of the game teeing off on the opposing quarterback, which makes it very difficult to mount a comeback against them. If the Saints fall behind, the run defense becomes a problem. (Although the DVOA splits on this are a bit odd; the Saints ranked 30th in defense when tied or losing by a touchdown or less, yet they had the best defensive DVOA in the league when losing by more than a touchdown.)

The Saints' weakness against the run is a real problem against Minnesota. The issue isn't that Minnesota is a great running team. In fact, Minnesota was actually a below-average running team this year. Some of that is Adrian Peterson's propensity for fumbling, but the real problem is an overrated offensive line. The Vikings ranked 20th in Adjusted Line Yards, 23rd in success on power runs, and 31st in frequency of backs getting stuffed for a loss or no gain.

No, Minnesota is not a great running team, but they still have a great running back, and more importantly they are committed to the run. The phrase "committed to the run" is usually a lot of typical NFL commentator malarkey, but it's important in this case because the Vikings won't stop attacking this New Orleans weakness unless they fall significantly behind. The Vikings ran 56 percent of the time on first down -- not in New York Jets territory, but still in the NFL top ten. They ranked seventh in the NFL with 426 rushes from their running backs, which made them the only team that ranked in the top dozen for running back carries despite ranking lower than 20th in run offense DVOA.

The Saints' struggles against the run start up front, where the numbers suggest that Saints defenders can always be dragged along for an extra yard or two. Sedrick Ellis had a 53 percent Stop Rate on runs, the worst of any NFL defensive tackle with at least 20 run tackles, and he made his average tackle after a gain of 3.5 yards, the second-worst figure among defensive tackles. Anthony Hargrove wasn't much better at 62 percent and 3.2 yards. (To show what the other end of the spectrum looks like, Pat Williams had a Run Stop Rate of 83 percent and made his average tackle after a gain of 1.6 yards.) The numbers suggest that the Vikings will do best if they run behind left tackle; they ranked seventh in ALY on left tackle runs, and the Saints defense was dead last on these runs.

The Saints also weren't the kind of team that gives up runs up front but keeps runners from making big plays downfield; they ranked 20th in Open Field Yards per carry allowed. The Vikings were eighth in OFY, and if we only considered Adrian Peterson, the Vikings would be fifth. So the opportunities for a long highlight run will be there.

Minnesota's passing game was much better than its running game this season, but the same goes for the New Orleans pass defense, and the Saints should play closer to their level from the first half of the season now that Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter are back in the lineup. Greer missed Weeks 10-16 with a sports hernia, and his injury was the biggest reason why New Orleans ranked third in pass defense DVOA in Weeks 1-9 but 20th in Weeks 10-17. According to the game charting data we've accumulated so far, Greer had a 69 percent Success Rate with 4.7 yards allowed per pass. In both categories, he's second among cornerbacks with at least 30 charted pass targets, behind only Darrelle Revis. Porter's charting stats are slightly above-average. He's not close to Greer, but what's important is that he's better than the guys who replaced him when he was injured, guys like Randall Gay and rookie Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins has terrible charting numbers; he has the fourth worst average yards allowed per pass (10.6) among corners with at least 30 charted targets, and only Tennessee's Nick Harper had a Success Rate below Jenkins' 41 percent. The "DVOA vs. receivers" stats back the charting data: New Orleans ranked second overall in DVOA against number-one receivers, but didn't do well against second and third wideouts.

This table gives a good example of the effect Greer's injury had on the Saints defense in the second half of the season. Greer is the left cornerback, so he plays on the offensive right. We've removed the Week 17 game where the Saints sat many of their starters.

New Orleans "Defense DVOA vs. Receivers" and Yards/Pass Based on Direction, 2009

DVOA Left Middle Right Yards/Pass Left Middle Right
Weeks 1-9 2.5% 8.9% -32.6% x Weeks 1-9 8.1 8.5 4.5
Weeks 10-16 8.5% 25.9% -4.8% x Weeks 10-16 7.6 9.6 7.1

If Greer is the most important player on the Saints' defense, the blitz is the most important strategy. Saints send six or more pass rushers 21 percent of the time, more than any defense except Philadelphia, and Brett Favre struggled against the blitz this year. The Vikings averaged 7.5 yards per play against four pass rushers, 6.9 yards per play against five, and 5.1 yards per play against six or more. The Vikings also take a lot of sacks; they ranked 25th in offensive Adjusted Sack Rate. It is worth noting that the Saints have trouble getting to the quarterback on third down, even though that's when they blitz most. The Saints send a big blitz on 15 percent of first downs, 22 percent of second downs, and 29 percent of third downs. Yet they rank eighth in Adjusted Sack Rate on first and second down, but 29th on third and fourth down.

It's important that the Saints don't leave Percy Harvin or Sidney Rice open because they blitz too much on third down. Nearly half of Harvin's passes came on third down, and he was Favre's favorite third-down target. He wasn't the best third-down target, however; that title goes to Sidney Rice, who had an amazing 77 percent catch rate on third down and converted 74 percent of the time. (This was a big reason why he led the league in receiving DYAR this season.) The Vikings also like to dump it off underneath to the running backs on third down. They were one of only two teams to throw more than 25 percent of third-down passes to running backs (the other was Buffalo). The Saints were an average defense against passes to running backs, so there are plays to be had there. However, the Saints should also be able to slow down Visanthe Shiancoe, as they ranked fifth in the league defending tight ends.

One way to slow down the blitz, of course, is the screen pass. The Vikings like to run screens but are very boom-and-bust. Their average of 8.2 yards is the third highest according to game charting data, but only 38 percent of these passes actually qualified as successful. Three of the 29 screens in our current data gained over 30 yards, but five other screens were stopped at or before the line of scrimmage.

WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL

Perhaps the biggest surprise about the Saints offense is how much they run the ball, and how good they are at it. Obviously, some of this is the effect of running out the clock in wins, but the Saints actually had more running back carries than the Vikings did this season. Pierre Thomas led all running backs in rushing DVOA this season and was third in the NFL with a 56 percent Success Rate. Reggie Bush didn't have enough carries for our rankings, but he actually had a higher DVOA than Thomas, not to mention the first positive rushing DVOA of his career.

Nonetheless, running the ball means going right into the strength of the Vikings defense. Both of these units led the NFL in DVOA on running plays. Adjusted Line Yards numbers line the Saints and Vikings up nearly perfectly, with both teams weak in the same area (left end runs). The Saints are a top ten team in Power Success, preventing stuffs at the line, and Open Field Yards. So are the Vikings on defense. If the Vikings get the upper hand on the Saints' early running attempts, they can get the Saints to give up on the run almost entirely. That's what happened in the Week 15 loss to Dallas, when the Saints ran the ball only four times after halftime. However, shutting down the New Orleans run on first down doesn't mean the Vikings can shut down the offense entirely, because the Vikings are so poor in long-yardage situations (7+ yards to go). Minnesota is 30th in defensive DVOA in second-and-long and 28th in DVOA in third-and-long. The Saints can also build an offense with small runs and short passes -- they really excelled in third down and "medium" situations (4-6 yards to go), with league's best DVOA.

(By the way, make sure to read Mike Tanier's Walkthrough explaining the plays the Vikings will use to try to disrupt the New Orleans running game.)

The Saints love to run the ball to set up their play-action passes, and they use play-action more than any other team in the league. What's strange is that they actually average more yards per play without play-action (8.2) than with (7.6). Not that 7.6 yards per pass is a bad number, but given the Saints' big numbers on deep passes (which we'll get to in a moment), you would expect the Saints to be better on play-action, not worse. The Vikings are good about not falling for play-fakes, one of only seven teams that allowed fewer yards when teams used play-action. They gave up just 5.5 yards on these passes, compared to 6.3 yards on other plays. (The Saints were also one of these seven defenses, by the way, with a smaller gap.)

The Saints passing game is based on spreading the ball around and moving guys to different places in the formation in order to set up favorable matchups. The Saints spread the ball to different targets more than any other team in the league. Brees threw only 20 percent of passes to his number-one receiver, Marques Colston. That's the lowest percentage of any offense -- yet Colston was still Brees' most common target on first, second, and third downs. The Saints also ranked 27th in percentage of passes thrown to the number-two receiver (defined as Devery Henderson), but they ranked second in the percentage of passes thrown to running backs (behind only Baltimore). You can be sure that Sean Payton will be maneuvering to get Jeremy Shockey lined up against Benny Sapp or Reggie Bush one-on-one with rookie middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley.

Vikings opponents certainly know which side of the secondary needs to be challenged. Opponents threw 47 percent of passes against the Vikings to the right side; that's the highest percentage of any defense in the NFL. It didn't matter which cornerback was over there opposite Griffin -- Antoine Winfield, Karl Paymah, or Sapp. In fact, the percentage of passes thrown to the right against the Vikings actually went down between Week 6 and Week 13 when Winfield was injured. Last week, Sapp started in Winfield's place, with the veteran coming onto the field as the nickel back only, and we expect something similar this week.

The Vikings are also vulnerable against deep passes, which is a real problem because nobody goes deep better than the Saints. Across the NFL, deep passes (more than 15 yards in length) gained an average of 11.8 yards. They were caught 40 percent of the time, and the league-wide DVOA on these passes was 22.5%. When the Saints threw deep, they gained an average of 17.0 yards with 77.4% DVOA and a 55 percent catch rate. The first two numbers were the best in the league, the last was second to Houston -- but the Saints and Texans were the only two offenses to complete over 50 percent of deep passes.

However, the Saints faced better pass rushes in the second half of the year, and that meant less time for Brees to set up and go deep. In the first eight weeks of the year, the Saints averaged 14.9 yards per reception. From Weeks 9-16, they averaged just 11.6 yards per reception, and they averaged 10.7 yards per reception against the Cardinals last week. The Saints have been just as successful when they throw deep, they just do it less. (The Saints tried 7.4 deep throws per game in Weeks 1-8 with 81.2% DVOA, but 5.1 deep throws per game in Weeks 9-16... with 83.8% DVOA. And, in case you are curious, opponents have not been blitzing the Saints any more in recent weeks.)

The Vikings allowed an average catch rate on deep throws, and an average number of yards per pass. They ranked just 25th in DVOA against deep throws because they only had four interceptions on deep passes, fewer than every defense except for Detroit and St. Louis. (The Vikings finished with just 11 interceptions total, tied for 26th in the league -- it is one of the reasons why they have a poor pass defense DVOA despite a top pass rush.) If the Saints want to go deep, it is best to challenge the safeties down the middle or Benny Sapp on the (offensive) right side. The Vikings were much better against deep throws to the left, partly because Cedric Griffin had all four of those deep interceptions. The Saints can also challenge Winfield, as his foot pain will probably make it tough for him to keep up with deep routes.

So with trouble in the secondary, the Vikings will depend on their pass rush to slow down the New Orleans passing game. As with the running game, pass rushing presents a matchup of strength against strength. The Vikings were fourth in Adjusted Sack Rate on defense, the Saints third on offense. Although the Saints haven't gone deep as often in recent weeks, and lost three straight to finish the season, the conventional wisdom that Brees' protection broke down during the last few weeks of the season really isn't true. The protection broke down in one game -- the Week 15 loss to Dallas -- but we all remember it because that game happened to be nationally televised. Brees was sacked four times in that game, but doesn't have another game with more than one sack since Week 8. Obviously, there's more to pass pressure than just sacks, but Brees was near the bottom of the league in quarterback hits this year as well.

Nevertheless, a low sack total doesn't mean the Saints offensive line is strong across the board. The clear weakness on the offensive line is left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who was killed by DeMarcus Ware in that Week 15 game and will have to face Jared Allen this week. Since the Saints don't take a lot of sacks, our stats don't list a lot of blown blocks by Saints offensive linemen that led to sacks. We've only charted 14 of Brees' sacks from the regular season, and six of those have "Blown Block" listed as the reason -- but four of those six blown blocks are by Bushrod.

The Vikings need to try to get to Brees with the conventional four-man pass rush, because a blitz really opens things up for him to exploit their weaknesses in the secondary. According to game charting numbers, there was very little difference in the Minnesota defense whether they blitzed or did not blitz. They zone blitz a lot, usually with Ray Edwards dropping into coverage, but that also didn't really give them much of an advantage either. Meanwhile, Brees eats big blitzes for breakfast and zone blitzes for lunch, averaging 9.1 yards per pass against a pass rush of six or more and 9.4 yards per pass on plays marked as zone blitzes. Instead of Sean Payton getting all funky with the complicated plays, the Saints are probably better off letting Brees neutralize the blitz by finding holes in the coverage. Although the Saints like to run screen passes to their running backs, they aren't as successful as you might think. They average just 5.6 yards according to our game charting, less than the NFL average of 6.4 yards on running back screens. The Vikings faced a lot of screens -- more than any other defense, according to our data collected so far -- and did very well on these plays, allowing less than five yards per pass.  Draws aren't going to slow them down either; the Vikings allowed just 3.0 yards on the average draw, better than any defense except Pittsburgh.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Here's the biggest area where the Vikings have an advantage over the Saints. The Vikings ranked third in our special teams ratings, the Saints 28th. The Saints were among the five weakest NFL teams in field-goal kicking, punting, and punt returns. (Before last week's touchdown against the Cardinals, Reggie Bush had only two returns over 15 yards all season.) The Vikings got excellent kick returns from Percy Harvin and Ryan Longwell was 26-of-28 on field goals. However, the one area where Minnesota special teams are weak (Longwell has poor distance on kickoffs) matches the only area where the Saints had good special teams this year (Courtney Roby's kick returns).

Thanks to a good defense and excellent special teams, Minnesota was one of only two teams to start its average drive past the 32-yard line. (The other was Chicago.)

OUTLOOK

There's no doubt that in general, passing and pass defense is more important in the modern NFL than running and run defense. But that's in general, not in every specific matchup, and the Vikings have an advantage when it comes to the running game on both sides of the ball. When it comes to the pass, things seem more balanced, although the Vikings will be heavily dependent on their pass rush to hide the weaknesses in the secondary and need to make sure they don't overdo it with blitzes. Minnesota seems to have the matchup edge, but the Saints have the home-field advantage, and they were the better team during the regular season and in recent weeks. Our premium picks formula spit this game out pretty close to 50-50, and I'm inclined to agree. However, that assumes that these teams are fully healthy. Knee injuries have kept both Kevin Williams and Ray Edwards out of practices this week, and Percy Harvin has also missed practice with a recurrence of his migraine headaches. If any of those players miss this game -- and it would probably be Harvin if one of them does -- that's an extra advantage for New Orleans.


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.

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."

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 22 Jan 2010

59 comments, Last at 24 Jan 2010, 12:56pm by TheChadHenneMeme

Comments

1
by jklps :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 5:21pm

Can't wait for 6:40pm on Sunday. Should be a fun game.

2
by jmaron :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 5:43pm

Not that history between Minn and NO means anything but the Vikings sure seem to have the Saints number over the last 20 or so years. Since 1987 I think the Vikings are 11-3 vs the Saints. Of those 11 wins 6 were blowouts including two playoff games. Blowouts usually occur when one team is quite a bit better than the other but in most cases the Saints and Vikings were fairly evenly matched (at least record wise).

Vikings and Saints record in brackets - Vikings first

2000: 34-16 (11-5 vs 10-6)
1987: 44-10 (8-7 vs 12-3)

Other Viking wins in that time frame

2005: 33-16 (9-7 vs 3-13)
1995: 43-24 (8-8 vs 7-9)
1990: 32-3 (6-10 vs 8-8)
1988: 45-3 (11-5 vs 10-6)

Even the close games in the Super Dome seem to turn out for the Vikings (last year 30-27) Tice's first year where they went for 2 on the last play on a Culpepper sneak (32-31).

Of course this is all nonsense because all the players and coaches are different but over the years as a Viking fan I just kind of presumed the Vikings would end up beating NO - now I know where that feeling came from.

12
by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:21pm

Everyone has the Saints number over the past 20 years.

26
by andrew :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 7:44pm

That 1987 game is the one that stands out, it was easily the best Saints team prior to this year (it was their franchise record for consecutive wins they broke this year). And it started perfectly for the saints too, Wilson sacked first play, fumbles, Saints recover, next play Hebert throws a touchdown for a quick 7-0 lead.

While it may seem a huge upset (12-3 losing to 8-7) that was a strike year, and the Vikings had one of if not the worst strike team, and had complete union solidarity unlike other teams that had various star players come back before the strike ended. So they went 0-3 in the strike games, and were really an 8-4 team overall. However they finished with a loss when they could have clinched a playoff berth with a win, in a game vs. the Redskins they lead but lost when the Redkins backup QB (Doug Williams replacing Jay Schroeder) lead them to victory. They backed in, shocked the Saints and then the 13-2 Niners before losing again to the Redskins.

3
by Nathan :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 5:48pm

This is an excellent article... some really good analysis. Thanks.

4
by Dean :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 5:54pm

So here’s an interesting question…

Lets say that a baseball player played until he was in his 40s. A star player. A sure-fire Hall of Famer. A pitcher. One of the 100 or so greatest to ever play the game at any position. A guy who was well known for being highly competitive – even when compared to other elite athletes. This player went to rehab early in his career, and by all reports never relapsed. He had a “normal” career arc for that of a star player. Meaning that he produced at an MVP/Hall of Fame level for several years, and then somewhere in his 30s his skills started to erode. He was still good, but not what he once was. Then, somewhere in his late 30s, his skills started to erode further and people started openly questioning if he’d played too long. At age 40 this pitcher had offseason surgery on his throwing arm. Then, after a decade of eroding/declining skills the pitcher came back and had arguably his best year ever at age 40. Better by far than any of his last 10 years.

If this were a baseball player, would we not suspect steroids, or HGH, or something along those lines?

So why do we not wonder when it’s Brett Favre?

5
by Nathan :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 5:57pm

I started wondering this year...

6
by ineedawittyname (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:07pm

Part of the reason is because the talent he is surrounded with right now is so much higher then anything he has had in the recent future. Being on a team with a really talented pair of RBs like MN will means he doesn't have to rely on the pass, and the talented WRs contribute heavily to his improved numbers. At least, that's how I read it.

7
by ineedawittyname (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:08pm

ummm... that should say "recent past" not "recent future". Don't know where that came from...

10
by Nathan :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:13pm

Don't forget his, uh, "gifted" tight end.

28
by young curmudgeon :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 8:05pm

Maybe because baseball as a sport is permeated with drug-using losers, while the NFL features 280 pound behemoths who can run at speeds unattainable by 180 pound athletes only a generation ago due solely to improvements in diet, training, and equipment.

I'm still waiting for that shoe to drop--I know that the league has a testing regimen, but it is hard to believe that pharmaceutical enhancement isn't playing some kind of role.

47
by Jerry :: Sat, 01/23/2010 - 7:19am

280 is undersized anymore.

34
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 8:39pm

If this were a baseball player, would we not suspect steroids, or HGH, or something along those lines?

It depends. What caused that 'best year ever'? Did his fastball increase in speed, or did he suddenly have a variety of new pitches? If the former, yeah, duh. If the latter... I have no idea how steroids suddenly makes you a better technical pitcher.

But the analogy doesn't work, anyway. How was Favre better this year? Was his arm strength suddenly better? No, not really, his yards/completion were higher much earlier in his career (it peaked back in 1997). He was better primarily because he was more accurate than he's ever been before, and had far fewer interceptions. This doesn't seem to be consistent with steroids.

Plus, and I think this is the most important part: Favre was nearly as good two years ago, and nearly as good in 2004. Your "decade of declining skills" is actually completely false.

56
by commissionerleaf :: Sun, 01/24/2010 - 4:00am

Favre was better this year because the Vikings could have made the playoffs without him ever throwing the ball. It's amazing how playing with gigantic leads and padding your stats in the 4th quarter of noncompetitive games will make you a better quarterback. In 2005-2008, Favre played on borderline teams that he had to pitch back into contention: the result was mass interceptions from a declining player. In Minnesota, he played 20 preseason games. He gets to futz around against 8-9 men in the box to stop Adrian Peterson on the assumption that the opponents can't score anyway.

Whee.

Favre is Vinny Testeverde with better teammates. Always has been, always will be, even when he gets a gold jacket and Vinny doesn't.

57
by ammek :: Sun, 01/24/2010 - 7:45am

Should I feed?

Favre in 2009:

Pass attempts when leading by 9+ points: 109 (18.9% of total).

Passer rating when leading by 9+ points: 101.9.
Overall passer rating: 107.2.

Completion percentage, passes 1-20: 68.8%.
Completion percentage, passes 21+: 66.9%.

Interception rate, passes 1-20: 0.6% (2 in 340 attempts).

Favre in 2007 (year of "borderline team", "mass interceptions", etc):

Pass attempts when trailing: 154 (26.1%)

Interceptions: 16 in 591 attempts (2.7% rate).

Team W/L record: 14-4.

Furthermore, the article that you are supposed to be commenting on refutes just about every cliché that you propose. For instance, your Adrian Peterson theory is somewhat invalidated by Aaron's "Minnesota is not a great running team", and your "assumption that the opponents can't score" would be easier to defend if the little box at the top of the article didn't show Minnesota's defense ranking 15th and its pass defense 23rd.

The key to your post is "Always has been, always will be". You don't allow for change, for form, for circumstance: you have your pet theory, and no amount of evidence will get you to change it. Well, fine. But since you know you are always right, why do you bother discussing?

58
by ammek :: Sun, 01/24/2010 - 8:36am

While I'm at it, Favre may have had better teammates than Vinny, but it's still ridiculous to attribute his success to the talent around him. Favre will probably retire (yes, eventually he will!) without ever having played on an offense with another Hall of Famer. The only serious candidates are Steve Hutchinson and Adrian Peterson (still too early to say) and possibly Sterling Sharpe. Counting all three, that still represents less than 21% of his career.

Of the modern-era Hall of Fame QBs, Favre is exceptional in this regard. Warner (Faulk, Pace), Brady (Moss), Manning (Harrison, Saturday?), Young and Montana (Rice), Aikman (Smith, Irvin, Allen), Elway (Zimmerman, Sharpe?) and Marino (Stephenson) will all be joined in Canton by at least one offensive teammate. Even Warren Moon played a couple years with Cris Carter in Minnesota. I can't think of the last HoF QB never to have lined up with an fellow enshrinee. Maybe Fran Tarkenton?

And it's not like Favre has had an elite defense to fall back on: five top-ten DVOA finishes in 17 years; one surefire Hall of Famer (Reggie White) plus perhaps Revis, a Williams, Jared Allen…?.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, the leading rushers on Favre teams have included Vince Workman, Darrell Thompson, Samkon Gado, Edgar Bennett, and Darick Holmes (with 386 yards). The receivers have been better, but there were still two years where Billy Schroeder led the team. Favre's linemen have had 10 ProBowl nominations between them: five in the last three years, two in 2003 (when Favre had a poor season), and three in the remaining 14 years.

But yeah, deep down, he's Vinny-got-lucky.

8
by DFJinPgh (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:09pm

Does NO really have the #1 rushing team (on a per-play basis) in the NFL? Or is this a case where their spectacular passing offense is putting them in situations that don't have analogues in the DVOA baselines, like happened in 2007 with the Patriots? (he says, mentioning an analogue :-)

Could this be a profitable area of research, to see if rushing baselines have changed recently as offenses have become raging pass-happy?

33
by mm (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 8:36pm

It's aided by the fact that teams primarily gear up to stop the Saint's passing game, just like Minnesota's passing offense is helped because defenses try to stop their running game. But yeah, it's good. They have a great interior line with good running backs.

46
by t.d. :: Sat, 01/23/2010 - 2:57am

DVOA is measuring how effective teams are in the context of their offenses. It describes, it doesn't explain. For example, early in the season against the Vikings, the accepted strategy was to stack the box and make Favre beat you. Favre's success against teams playing eight in the box still counts, even if teams have realised that isn't the best strategy for beating the Vikings anymore. I don't think you can take scheme out of the data.

9
by milo (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:10pm

Vikings defense has positive DVOA in 6 of 8 road games, including last 4 roadies. Only 2 of 9 home games. Is the shoppingcenterdome that loud?

13
by Margaret (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:22pm

Yes.

11
by teddy ballgame (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:20pm

So if a key Minnesota guy misses the game then it helps New Orleans. That's what the conclusion told me. Glad I read that.

Stating the obvious serves no purpose.

14
by muteant :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:31pm

Don't be a jerk. He was just stating that according to his analysis the game was essentially a toss-up, so an injury to a key player could make a big difference, versus the essential irrelevance such an injury would likely have if the match-up were lopsided.

-------------
"We're the worst thing since sliced bread" - Steve Francis

15
by teddy ballgame (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:34pm

The outlook on these things tend to be lengthy and vague. If Aaron was a weatherman, it would be "partly cloudy, chance of precipitation" every day.

Back to FOA 2009. I love the part where Matt Forte is compared to Emmitt Smith.

20
by dmb :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:48pm

So let me get this straight: you're expecting bold predictions that are 100% accurate?

FO makes a lot of predictions, some bold, some not so much. When you put out so many projections, it's pretty easy to find a lot of predictions that look embarrassing in retrospect, no matter how accurate you are.

"The outlook on these things tend to be lengthy and vague."

By "these things," I assume you're referring to playoff game previews. ("These things" is a pretty vague phrase itself.) I'm going to dismiss the "lengthy" criticism, since you're in the wrong place if all you want is a little logo representing which team is predicted to win, without any in-depth analysis to accompany it. (I believe the "Worldwide Leader" has a surplus of those.)

As for the "vague" criticism, well...

From the AFC preview: "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."

So Mr. Barnwell has predicted the Colts to win unless:
(a) Manning has a freakishly (by his standards) poor game; or
(b) the Jets score two non-offensive TDs.

I suppose he could give you a precise definition of "absolute meltdown," but that looks like a pretty concrete prediction to me.

The NFC preview is admittedly a bit less precise, but it seems pretty clear that Aaron's calling it a "pick 'em" if everyone's healthy, and a narrow Saints advantage if not.
...

21
by muteant :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:51pm

I'll take a well-informed weatherman over a self-declared rainmaker any day of the week, but hey, if you want to see Trent Dilfer in turquoise feathers and not much else, that's your prerogative.

-------------
"We're the worst thing since sliced bread" - Steve Francis

27
by young curmudgeon :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 7:57pm

I don't want to see Trent Dilfer in turquoise feathers and not much else, but there are some who might. As a public service, you should indicate where this spectacle may be witnessed--if nothing else, it would allow the rest of us to discreetly avert our eyes. :)

16
by dmb :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:37pm

Skipping to the end serves no purpose, either. It would be misleading and useless to predict one team to win under most or all circumstances when the analysis suggests that the teams are matched up evenly. Although the conclusion may not be surprising, it's the quality of the analysis leading to that conclusion that's important ... so maybe you would care to comment on that.

17
by teddy ballgame (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:40pm

I'll never win a debate against all the sycophants here. Just don't be afraid to think for yourselves, guys.

18
by teddy ballgame (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:42pm

One other thing - the Tanier previews are fantastic. Those are the ones everyone should be gushing over.

22
by dmb :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 7:02pm

I'm not sure what sort of favor a reader would be trying to curry by defending an article here. I guess there could be an occasional misguided attempt to score an internship or something, but I don't think "sycophant" is an accurate description of the typical commenter. In the meantime, I guess I'll have to keep hoping that one day maybe I'll be brave like you, and manage the courage to "think for myself."

As for Tanier's previews, they are indeed excellent, but they're also much less in-depth. I generally find his writing better than anything else out there, but if you're looking for pure analysis, you'll find much more to sort through here. If you're just looking for quick but meaningful insight, the NYT articles are perfect; however, if you're wanting a print version of NFL Matchup, these (and "Cover-3") are much better. It's fine if you prefer the latter, but it's silly to criticize this article for failing to be something it wasn't intended to be. It's like you're looking at a steak and calling it a poor appetizer.

24
by teddy ballgame (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 7:11pm

Playbook is better than Matchup now. Jaworski has lost a lot off his fastball in the last few years. And the MNF sthkick with Jaws and Gruden can't be defended - I actually feel bad for Tirico having to be the traffic cop.

19
by Nathan :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 6:44pm

Don't be afraid to ignore 5 pages of analysis of hand-charted statistics to focus on two sentences about injuries tacked on to the end of the article, coming off like a total dipshit in the process.

Oh, wait.

23
by teddy ballgame (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 7:07pm

There's no need to call me a dipshit. The only true dipshits I know are the guys who took KUBIAK's advice on Julius Jones in 2009.

25
by your friend fricka (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 7:42pm

Hey "teddy", how's about we make your comment a "fill in the blank" so's you can save yourself some time in the future.

Something like this: "There's no need to [insert warranted derogatory comment here]. The only true [derogatory comment] I know are the [insert some group of folks who use footballoutsider stats] who used [insert one specific footballoutsider stat] to [insert one of several thousand possible fantasy football decisions]."

Hope this helps you save time on your future comments! Unless, of course, you have nothing better do do. Oh wait . . .

29
by Aaron Schatz :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 8:10pm

Three comments about the unfortunately angry snipe-fest that seems to have developed in this discussion thread.

1) We've discovered over the last few years that the comments in the discussion threads always tend to become more angry around the playoffs. The trolls come out to play, and even the dedicated, long-time fans tend to obsess over one or two teams where predictions were wrong or the stats look strange. I don't blame anyone, because it certainly is easier to obsess over one or two teams when there are only 12 or 8 or 4 teams left instead of 32. But be nice and try not to call each other dipshits, okay?

2) It's a lot easier to take criticism seriously if the name is not followed by the words "not verified." Score one for Jeff Fogle, I guess.

3) Yeah, Matt Forte. What the hell? I've spoken to a few people, reporters or people in the league, nobody can figure out what happened there. Everyone agrees it is more than just the poor offensive line. I wonder if there actually is anyone out there who predicted Forte's collapse before this season... pretty much everyone I read thought he was a major young talent.

30
by Nathan :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 8:16pm

Dipshit? Did you call moi a dipshit?

Ok, I'm done.

31
by teddy ballgame (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 8:17pm

Fair enough. PTI.

32
by Brian :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 8:23pm

Well, Forte just had knee surgery, which was perhaps the culmination of a season in which he appeared to have some nagging injuries.

Also, I hate to bring up the workload argument, but it might be relevant here. He was worked pretty hard his senior year at Tulane, and then he was the focal point of Chicago's offense as a rookie last year, with 316 carries and 63 receptions. Not that that's an exceptionally high workload, but tacking that onto his last year in college in which he had 361 carries... it might have had an impact on him this year.

36
by Eddo :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 9:17pm

Thanks for the feedback, Aaron.

With regards to point (2), have you guys considered requiring users to register in order to comment? That works well at sites like baseballthinkfactory.com, without stifling debate or differing opinions.

As for point (3), Forte's biggest strength last year, in my eyes, was his incredible vision (not just for a rookie). This year, he seemed to be playing much more tentatively. Was it due to a lack of confidence in his offensive line? Different demands made of him? Nagging injuries? I can't tell, though I think it's a combinations of all the above.

37
by Jeff Fogle :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 9:47pm

Thanks, I guess (lol)...

Can't tell if that means you take me seriously, or see me as a sniping troll with a name. Probably half and half. How about whiny self-appointed stat-budsmen? Probably sums it up...

38
by Bill Barnwell :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 10:01pm

I'm pretty sure Aaron meant that you're a smart guy whose constructive criticisms are logical and deserve attention. I love it when we get smart criticism of things related to DVOA and the site. Makes me smarter, makes the site better. When there's "YOU GOT ____ WRONG YOU ARE TEH DUMB", well, that's another story.

40
by Jeff Fogle :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 10:11pm

Nice of you to say Bill. Will you guys be doing that "live blog" thing for the Super Bowl that you did for the BCS game? That was a lot of fun to read all through the night. I know you guys will cover the game from head to foot ahead of time. Fun to bring it all together as the game plays itself out in the context of all the analysis. Kind of like being in the midst of that NFL email package you guys put together every week that's so popular, except we're seeing it in real time as the game unfolds...

50
by Aaron Schatz :: Sat, 01/23/2010 - 1:05pm

And yeah, I meant what Bill said, although I'll have more time to take them seriously after the Super Bowl...

43
by Lance :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 11:56pm

Thanks for your level-headed reply, Aaron. As a FO follower for years, I know I still take the bait with the ridiculous anti-Cowboys hate, but in general, it's always best to avoid the "not verified" trolls and enjoy discussions with the dedicated FO fans. Thanks for your efforts, and I (we) look forward to more in the future.

54
by BroncosGuy (not verified) :: Sat, 01/23/2010 - 10:13pm

I'm a verified troll. I've got papers and everything.

35
by mm (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 8:48pm

Good stuff, Aaron

The New Orleans defense is built much like the Indianapolis defense of a few years ago. Not when it comes to playcalling -- Gregg Williams and Tony Dungy are polar opposites when it comes to blitz strategy. But the overall idea is the same. As long as the powerful Saints offense can get a big lead in the second half, the run defense problems are masked.

Well, the emphasis on pass defense is there, but the blitz strategy is a big difference in philosophy. When the Saints are healthy, they give up the occasional big play, run or pass, but they also would make many big plays, forcing a turnover or tackling a running back for a loss. It was very hard for opponents to get long sustained drives against the team while the game was in doubt; they either scored quickly or not at all (See the Arizona game, or Miami). Either way, the offense got the ball back quickly. "Tampa 2" is a 100% opposite philosophy; forcing teams to go up the field slowly and wait for them to make a mistake.

The numbers suggest that the Vikings will do best if they run behind left tackle; they ranked seventh in ALY on left tackle runs, and the Saints defense was dead last on these runs.

With Charles Grant out for the post-season, right tackle will likely also be an enticing target.

49
by displaced_saints_fan :: Sat, 01/23/2010 - 11:19am

I really don't think Grant's injury is a significant loss. He's not bad, but the guy from 2004 is long gone.

51
by mm (not verified) :: Sat, 01/23/2010 - 1:10pm

In the passing game, trading Grant for McCray may actually be a small improvement. However, I think that same trade hurts the run defense, and I think the Vikings may try and attack there.

39
by krauser (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 10:09pm

Greer missed Weeks 10-16 with a sports hernia, and his injury was the biggest reason why New Orleans ranked third in pass defense DVOA in Weeks 1-9 but 20th in Weeks 10-17.

Might have something to do with the opposition.

QBs starting against the Saints, weeks 1-9:

1. Stafford (rookie, first game)
2. Kolb (subbing for McNabb, first career start)
3. Edwards
4. Sanchez (rookie, 4th career start)
5. Eli Manning
6. Henne (3rd career start)
7. Matt Ryan
8. Delhomme
9. Bulger

Only Manning finished the season in the top half of the league in passer rating. He was 11th. Ryan finished 20th. 4 of the 9 QBs they played before Jabari Greer got hurt were very inexperienced (Stafford, Kolb, Sanchez and Henne). Of the experienced QBs, 3 (Edwards, Delhomme and Bulger) had cover-your-eyes bad years and were ranked in the bottom 10 in the league (behind Jay Cutler, to give you an idea). No surprise, after playing 7 of their first 9 games against inexperienced and/or terrible QBs, the Saints were 9-0.

QBs starting against the Saints, weeks 10-16:

10. Freeman (rookie, 5th career start)
11. Brady
12. Jason Campbell
13. Chris Redman (subbing for Matt Ryan, career backup in only his 12th career start)
14. Romo
15. Freeman (still a rookie, 10th career start)
16. Matt Moore (8th career start)

Romo (8th), Brady (9th) and Campbell (15th) finished ranked in the top half of the league in passer rating. Along with Manning and Matt Ryan, they were only good, experienced opposing QBs the Saints saw all year.

You could make a case for some of the rookies/newbies: Kolb played reasonably well, Sanchez had a rough year but his team is still in contention, and Matt Moore looked great. Moore's passer rating of 98.5 doesn't get him into the season rankings because of too few attempts, but he actually grades out at the highest-rated passer the Saints played all year (better than Romo's 97.6, Brady's 96.2, or Warner's 93.2). But of course your analysis already excludes the second Saints-Panthers game, when Moore played against the Saints B team.

To sum up, the Saints pass D piled up great stats playing 7 of the first 9 games against either inexperienced or has-been QBs. After Jabari Greer went down and they finally had to face some tougher opposition, their stats were below-average (even that period includes 2 games against Josh Freeman and the Bucs and 1 against Chris Redman and the Falcons -- not exactly Murderer's Row).

Meanwhile Favre's passer rating was 107.2 this year, nearly 10 points higher than anyone else the Saints have seen this year. Shutting down the Vikings passing attack is hardly impossible (the Cards and Panthers did it) but it looks a real challenge for a Saints pass D that hasn't seen anything like it all year.

41
by Darrel Michaud :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 10:37pm

Well, I very much doubt that Tom Brady had anything to do with the Saints pass defense hitting rock bottom.

42
by mm (not verified) :: Fri, 01/22/2010 - 11:56pm

DVOA accounts for opponents, so some of that is included.

If your analysis is correct, I suppose the Rams had the best Qarterbacking the Saints saw all season. Injuries to the Saints had nothing to do with it!

Also, for your analysis, you should ignore game 16, when the Saints went with backups, and include game 17, when they went up against Kurt Warner.

53
by krauser (not verified) :: Sat, 01/23/2010 - 4:42pm

The analysis has nothing much to do with DVOA. Just pointing out the Saints didn't face a top-level QB until the second half of the year. Even then, they were great sometimes (facing Brady), and their worst games still weren't that bad.

The Saints generally played well against the pass all year, including against the Cards last week. From what I've seen, they use a lot of creative blitz schemes and play a lot of pressure coverage. I'd guess that style is in general most effective against weaker offensive talent, and it's well suited to produce INTs and red zone stops especially against inexperienced QBs. It's probably also most effective when the defense is playing with a healthy lead and knows the opposing team is going to have to force the ball downfield.

So my point is that their stats may not accurately predict their ability to shut down Favre or to force Peyton Manning to make rookie mistakes. They should be fine as long as they get a lead, but in a tight game I wouldn't bet the farm on them stopping a game-saving drive just because they piled up great stats against Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez back in September.

44
by Vincent Verhei :: Sat, 01/23/2010 - 12:46am

I just wanted to say that there's a flippin' ROBOTECH ad on the football site I write for. Haven't had a nerdgasm like that in a while.

45
by utvikefan (not verified) :: Sat, 01/23/2010 - 2:34am

Can I just say thanks for the hard work, and well done analysis? I haven't done that, lately, and would just like to say thanks. GO VIKES!

48
by ammek :: Sat, 01/23/2010 - 8:18am

Seconded. Apart from the 'Go Vikes' part.

52
by whodat :: Sat, 01/23/2010 - 2:21pm

Great writeup. The NO offense (and I guess its red-zone defense) has been so good this year it's compensated for deficiencies of special teams.

Re the hate, as a NO fan all I can say at this point is that love for this team has made it hard to think about the other side in a dehumanizing or demonizing way.

At least until kickoff.

55
by NickKelly (not verified) :: Sat, 01/23/2010 - 10:48pm

What a household I have. I'm scouring previews for information on who could actually have an edge in this game, and my wife is saying "Go Saints!" because they had a dog that runs out and picks up the tee after a kickoff.

I'm pulling for the Saints because that city could still use as much prosperity as possible in the post-Katrina efforts...and because I'm a Raiders fan who won't have a team to root for in the Super Bowl for another fifteen years.

59
by TheChadHenneMeme (not verified) :: Sun, 01/24/2010 - 12:56pm

the Saints have the home-field advantage, and they were the better team during the regular season and in recent weeks.

I won't argue home-field advantage, obviously...or regular season, the Saints flew high....but recent weeks? I'll argue that.

In their last game when they didn't play anyone, so toss that out...but the game before that when they tried and failed to beat the Bucs (At Home, no less)...or the game before that when the Cowboys went into New Orleans and won....or the game before that when a shanked Suisham kick bailed them out.

Then again, the Cowboys were the NFC favorites. What happened to them again?