How did New England find the right combination of offensive linemen this season, and where are Seattle's biggest weaknesses in pass protection?
22 Jan 2010
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.
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.
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
|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.
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.
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.)
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.
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."
59 comments, Last at 24 Jan 2010, 12:56pm by TheChadHenneMeme