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?
21 Jan 2011
by Bill Barnwell
Although it seems impossible to believe, there may actually be a facet of an NFL playoff game that's been undersold. Saying that the Bears and Packers are familiar with each other because they've already played two games versus each other isn't doing the concept justice. Although it's only Julius Peppers's third game against the Packers as a member of the Bears, other key players can probably give directions in each town. Brian Urlacher's played the Packers 20 times. Olin Kreutz is at 24. Donald Driver's got 20 starts against the Bears. Guys like Charles Woodson and Lance Briggs are in double-digits, and even relatively young players like Matt Forte and Greg Jennings aren't far off.
Compounding that is the fact that, outside of the Packers' shift to the 3-4 before the 2009 season, not much has changed about these teams schematically since the arrival of Lovie Smith in 2004. The Bears still run the Tampa-2 as their base defense most of the time. The Packers are still using an offense that Brett Favre ran, while the Bears haven't exactly shifted their offense under Mike Martz into "The Greatest Show on Slop". It may actually end up being the way that these teams shift out of their familiar alignments into different looks -- and how the opposition handles it -- that could be the key to victory this Sunday.
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. All stats are regular season only except for WEIGHTED DVOA and anywhere else it is specifically 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.
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The Bears were able to hold Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense to 27 points over two games. In Week 17, they limited the Packers to 10 points and an offensive DVOA of -18.7%, their lowest number of the year for a game that Rodgers started and finished. In Week 3, although they held the Packers to just 17 points, Green Bay produced a DVOA of 31.7%, which was the Packers' sixth-best game of the regular season. How can a difference of seven points result in such a shift in DVOA?
There's a variety of reasons why. One, of course, is penalties: The Packers committed eight offensive penalties in that game and 18 overall, and DVOA sees an offense that was executing well when it wasn't in third-and-20. Because Green Bay ran so many plays and had the ball for so long, they only had eight meaningful drives, and four of them produced 56 yards or more. Only one of those drives started beyond their own 28-yard line; meanwhile, thanks to great work on special teams, five of the Bears' eight drives started on their own 40-yard line or even closer to the Packers' end zone. That Week 3 game contained Jermichael Finley and Mark Tauscher, though, so it's probably better to focus on the matchup as it looked in Week 17, which is what I'm going to do.
One of the biggest reasons why the Bears have been able to slow the Packers down has been their ability to shut down the Green Bay running game. You might say that most teams have been able to do that, but the Bears have done a particularly good job. The Packers have run the ball with a running back 30 times in these two matchups and produced just four first downs and seven successful carries, yielding a Success Rate of 23.3 percent. A heavier dosage of James Starks could help, but an even better idea would be to ensure that they run with a fullback (which could be tight end Tom Crabtree) or two in the alignment. The Packers' Success Rate improves with the number of backs they have in the formation. They have a 33.1 percent Success Rate with a lone back, a 38.2 percent Success Rate with two backs, and a whopping 51.6 percent Success Rate (on 31 regular-season carries) in their three-back alignment. Although the Packers are most likely to use that three-back set in short-yardage, which artificially inflates that Success Rate figure, it's still clear that they're a better team when they use a fullback.
Speaking of short-yardage, running in the red zone and particularly near the goal line may end up being an enormous factor in this game. The Bears have the league's worst red zone run defense and the second-worst defense in Power situations. Green Bay is 19th on the ground in the red zone and 25th in Power situations, so they're not great, but Starks and John Kuhn absolutely need to be able to push the pile inside the two-yard line to score touchdowns. Rodgers has been absolutely incredible in the red zone during the playoffs -- 12-of-12 for 102 yards, three first downs, and six touchdowns qualifies -- but the Bears have the league's best red zone pass defense. Green Bay's first trip to the red zone in Week 17 qualifies as an example of how things can go wrong. Kuhn was stuffed on first down from the 1-yard line, and on second down, the Packers decided to run somewhat of a trick play, a fake quarterback sneak that saw Rodgers try to throw a backwards pass to Brandon Jackson. The ball hit the ground and, although Jackson recovered, it resulted in a loss. On third down, the Packers went four-wide and the Bears had no trouble covering everyone, resulting in a coverage sack.
In most situations, I think the Packers would be best using their "20" personnel grouping -- two running backs, no tight ends, and three wide receivers. Assuming that one of the running backs on most plays is Starks, the other back can either be Kuhn, Crabtree, or Quinn Johnson. That grouping allows them to run out of the formation with a lead blocker, which has increased their efficiency, while keeping their best players on the field and creating a potential mismatch for the Bears. If the Bears respond by staying in their base 4-3 alignment, that can create several different opportunities, depending on which coverage the Bears show. In the traditional Tampa-2, Driver can work through the zones of linebackers to find a spot, which is old hat for him. If the Bears go with man coverage by a linebacker on Driver, likely Lance Briggs, that's an obvious mismatch in the Packers' favor. Pushing up a safety to man up on Driver isn't a great matchup for the Bears, and it forces them into one-deep coverage with Greg Jennings and James Jones (or Jordy Nelson) on the outside. If they go into a Nickel alignment, they get their third cornerback (likely D.J. Moore) on the field, making it easier for the Packers to run the ball.
So how do the Bears combat that? By not playing Tampa-2. In fact, Lovie Smith and Aaron Rodgers both pointed out this week that the Bears used a Cover-3 Shell as their base defense in Week 17. That allows the Bears to get three-deep coverage from their cornerbacks and safety Chris Harris (who is struggling with a hip injury that could keep him out on Sunday), with fellow safety Daniael Manning pushing up towards the line of scrimmage. Smith then gets to mix and match with his four defensive linemen, three linebackers, and a safety. Although it occasionally allows Smith to blitz a linebacker or even incorporate a zone blitz to put one of his speedy defensive linemen in a passing lane, it usually results in the four down linemen rushing the quarterback and four intermediate zones across the field. Quite simply, it's easier for wide receivers to beat guys covering a third of the field than it is to beat guys covering a quarter of it.
Of course, part of that can be gamesmanship. The Bears could have been showing the Packers a defense in Week 17 that they're unlikely to run all that much during the playoffs. One thing is for sure: The Bears will disguise their coverages before the snap to try and confuse Rodgers long enough for their pass rush to get home. On one play in Week 17, the Bears lined up in what appeared to be in man coverage and then blitzed nickel back D.J. Moore off the left edge. A linebacker also blitzed up the A-gap on that side of the field, trying to overload the left side of the Packers line with a five-man rush. The Bears went into their Cover-3 shell with, of all people, Julius Peppers dropping off the line of scrimmage into one of three intermediate zones. The Packers ended up winning on the play, as Brandon Jackson picked up the blitzing corner, the protection stuffed up the four other rushers, and Greg Jennings ran a fantastic dig route behind Peppers's zone that made Tim Jennings lose his footing, resulting in an easy pitch-and-catch for a first down.
The game-winning touchdown drive by the Packers produced two consecutive plays, both of which were actually pretty similar. On third-and-3, the Bears lined up in their Nickel package with three cornerbacks clearly in man coverage on wide receivers and both linebackers -- Urlacher and Briggs -- in their "mug" look, crowding the A-gaps to create doubt about whether they'll be blitzing or in zone coverage. The Bears had one high safety and had Manning creeping towards the line, about seven yards off, against Crabtree in a Trips alignment. At the snap, though, the linebackers backed off, the slot corner moved into zone, and Manning dropped back into Cover-2. That gave the Bears three underneath zones, two cornerbacks in man coverage on the two wide receivers, and two deep safeties. The one hole in that defense is deep up the middle, and that's exactly where the slot receiver -- Driver -- went. The underneath crossing route of Crabtree occupied both of the linebackers, and Driver was able to get enough depth to run past Moore's zone and make a 21-yard catch before the two safeties could react. It required great work by both Rodgers and Driver to beat the coverage.
On the next play, Rodgers hit Jennings for 46 yards down the sideline, moving the ball to the 1-yard line. (Rodgers would hit Donald Lee for a touchdown on play-action on the subsequent play.) Again, the receiver making the big play was in the slot, but it was a totally different concept against a similar defensive look. This time, the Packers were in the "20" personnel grouping with Kuhn and Starks in the I-Formation, and while Driver normally lines up in the slot when the Packers go three-wide, Jennings was there this time. Driver was outside him as the flanker, with James Jones as the split end on the other side of the field. The Bears were in just about the exact same alignment as they had been on the previous play. This time, Rodgers used play-action to freeze the linebackers and try to create another big play over the middle of the field, but it wasn't doing. The two linebackers didn't crash the run action, and Rodgers' first read -- James Jones -- was covered. He next looked to the middle, where Driver was running a deep post, but Daniael Manning jumped the post as soon as Rodgers looked towards Driver. Because there was great pass protection against the four-man rush, Rodgers got time to look at his last option, Jennings. Jennings ran a lackadaisical quick out (perhaps on purpose) that allowed Driver to get depth downfield and drive at the safety. Once Driver was about ten yards downfield, Jennings turned upfield and revealed his true intention: A go route deep up the sideline that would be open if the Bears played Cover-2 and Manning jumped the deep post. Sure enough, that was the case, and Rodgers squeezed a perfect throw past Zack Bowman for the big play.
With the big plays coming from the slot receiver, should the Packers go four-wide or employ an empty backfield to try and create those mismatches on either side of the field? Probably. Green Bay went with an empty backfield 13 times against Chicago in their two games, and those plays resulted in 10 completions for 80 yards, with one intentional grounding penalty and a holding penalty against Bulaga. On the other hand, 10 of those plays came in the Week 3 matchup, when the Packers still had Finley (who had nine catches for 115 yards). Green Bay went with that empty backfield for one whole series in Week 17, but after picking up a first down on that throw to Driver, they got the holding penalty on Bulaga (wiping out a huge gain on a throw to Greg Jennings), a Rodgers scramble for little gain, and then a checkdown to Driver on third-and-long. I don't think the Packers' pass protection can hold up against Chicago's front four without a back or two to help.
Here, the Week 17 film has significantly more meaning than what we saw in Week 3. The Bears offense was playing worse and had an entirely different right side up front (with Lance Louis at right guard and Kevin Shaffer at right tackle). The Packers, meanwhile, had the services of Nick Barnett, Morgan Burnett, Brandon Chillar, and Brady Poppinga, each of whom are on injured reserve. They also had Frank Zombo, who will likely be out this weekend and replaced by Erik Walden, who had three sacks in the Week 17 matchup. The Packers were also without Cullen Jenkins in Week 17, but have had him back for the playoffs.
During that Week 17 game, the Packers used their "Psycho" defensive front as their base defense. That was in part because of Jenkins' absence, but the Packers used it a fair amount of the time in Week 3, when Jenkins was active. The truth is that the Packers likely don't respect the Bears' running game all that much, and think that their best personnel package comes out of this exotic front.
So what's the Psycho package? Well, it's essentially the code for a Dom Capers defense with fewer than three defensive linemen. For the purposes of this article, I'll be referring to the specific alignment they ran as their primary defense in Week 17. On the line of scrimmage, Capers has just two down linemen, with two upright linebackers joining them for a four-man front. Fortunately, the down linemen are B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett, each of whom are big enough to play nose tackle in the 3-4. Against the Bears, Clay Matthews almost always lines up on the left side of the defense, placing him across from rookie right tackle J'Marcus Webb. Walden lines up across from Frank Omiyale. (The mention of those three sacks might make you think Omiyale had a howler, but one was a coverage sack and another was when Walden lined up as a standard linebacker and green-dogged his way past Roberto Garza.) The middle linebackers are A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop, while Charles Woodson lines up in the slot on either side of them, depending on the offensive formation. The defensive backfield (with Sam Shields replacing Woodson) is in a standard alignment. Depending on how you look at it, you can describe the Psycho as a 2-4-5 or, truthfully, a 4-3 with two mammoth defensive tackles and Woodson as a hybrid outside linebacker/cover cornerback.
To cover all the possibilities of the Psycho package would be an entirely separate article; fortunately, the Blitzology blog already wrote a nice little piece detailing some of the rush possibilities out of this alignment, so I'm going to refer you to that article. Of course, this alignment creates several opportunities for the Packers to get mismatches. Matthews vs. Webb, for one, is just unfair. The Bears need to help Webb against Matthews a fair amount of the time, and in Week 17, that was Brandon Manumaleuna's job. That kept Greg Olsen off the field or at fullback, where he doesn't often get downfield. Olsen finished the day with just 27 yards on five catches, catching a variety of checkdowns and short throws. He simply wasn't a threat as a receiver.
Of course, Olsen's success in the Divisional Round has inspired new concerns. In his preview for the National Football Post, Matt Bowen suggested that the Packers should have Woodson follow Olsen around when Olsen splits out. I think that's going to be a very interesting matchup to follow on either side. If the Packers do follow Bowen's advice and get Woodson out of the box if Olsen heads outside the hashmarks, it gets their best defender -- and the guy who really makes the Psycho defense work by being such a stout run defender and blitzer -- out of the picture. It makes the Packers' defense easier to read and should give Cutler more time in the pocket, since Woodson is such an effective pass rusher.
In the Psycho package against the Bears, Woodson blitzed off the edge just about half the time. One great example: The Bears had fourth-and-short and Woodson came on a blitz off the edge. Cutler did a great job of recognizing the blitz and instantly checked off to his hot read (well, I think it was his hot read), a quick slant to Rashied Davis in the slot that Woodson vacated. Even at 34, Woodson retains such incredible athleticism that he was able to reach back and tip away the pass from Cutler, stopping a sure first down and ending a drive in Packers territory.
On the other hand, the Bears might choose to exploit Olsen's success from a week ago by placing both Olsen and Johnny Knox in the slot as part of a four-wideout set. In that case, Woodson is stuck; the speed of Knox clearly dictates that Woodson has to take him, but that leaves Olsen with a matchup against somebody like Walden or Hawk. If the Packers then push up Charlie Peprah to handle Olsen, they end up with a single high safety and are susceptible to the deep routes of Knox, Olsen, and Devin Hester. Don't be surprised to see the Bears go with that personnel package, hoping that Matt Forte or Chester Taylor can help Webb on Matthews long enough for Olsen to exploit his mismatch.
The other way the Bears can beat the Psycho package is to run on it, something they did with some success early on in the Week 17 encounter. On their third drive, Matt Forte ran for 25 yards and then 21 yards on consecutive plays, each against the Psycho front, before the Packers reverted back to a 3-4 base (with Howard Green replacing the absent Jenkins) for the rest of the drive. The first play was a simple example of how they can exploit the six-man front, as the Bears lined up in the Strong-I front with Olsen, as a fullback, offset to Webb's side and Brandon Manumaleuna at right tackle. The Bears ran your standard elementary school trap play, with right guard Roberto Garza pulling left and engulfing the inexperienced Walden, who couldn't hold the edge. With two linebackers in the middle of the field and the third "linebacker", Woodson, shaded to the opposite edge, all Olsen needed to do was bother B.J. Raji long enough for Forte to get outside for 25 untouched yards. If the Packers do come out in the Psycho, don't be surprised to see the Bears use misdirection to try and take advantage of Woodson's aggression.
Our charting numbers suggest that the Packers won't blitz Cutler with significant numbers more so than their blitz rates against the rest of the league. They blitzed five against Cutler 30 percent of the time (24 times); against the rest of the league, they rushed five 27.6 percent of the time. They only rushed six three times in two games. The Packers often rush three in third-and-long, and Cutler only had a 23 percent Success Rate there. Cutler's numbers against four- and five-man rushes from the Packers were just about identical, as he had a 37 percent Success Rate in each case. He averaged 4.3 yards per attempt against four-man rushes and 4.7 yards per attempt against five-man rushes, well below both the league average and the Packers' average allowance to opposing offenses.
On the other hand, they don't want Cutler to scramble. When he gets out of the pocket, Cutler has a league-best 61 percent Success Rate and averages 7.8 yards per attempt. Cutler decided to run on five such plays against the Packers during the regular season, and he produced 45 yards and three first downs. One was a 16-yard gain on third-and-15.
Finally, the red zone could be a point where the Bears struggle. Chicago ranks 28th in red zone DVOA, while the Packers have the second-best red zone defense in the league, including the best goal-to-go defense in football. Chicago had five trips to the red zone in their two games against Green Bay, and they produced just 16 points: One touchdown, three field goals, and a fourth-and-1 stuff when Desmond Clark dropped a pass in the end zone off of a pick play.
The Bears have a dramatic advantage over the Packers on special teams, which exhibited itself in a variety of ways during the regular season. In addition to the huge disparity in short fields that I mentioned earlier, the Bears blocked a field goal and got a Devin Hester punt return for a touchdown in Week 3. In Week 17, the special teams battle was essentially equal (the Bears had a 4.9% DVOA and the Packers were at 4.2%), but the Bears are the huge favorites to make something happen with their specialists. Remember from earlier previews -- the Bears' offense has the league's best starting field position, with 66.6 yards to go for a touchdown.
Even if we consider weighted DVOA to try and capture how Chicago is playing at the moment, Green Bay is the better of these two teams. Although there are places where Chicago has an advantage -- notably special teams -- the Packers have far more mismatches to exploit than the Bears do on offense and defense. The hip injury to Harris, which has kept him out of practice for most of the week, should create another one even if the Bears safety can go on Sunday.
Certainly, the Bears could win this game. They should be able to slow down Rodgers some and prevent the Packers from running the ball effectively, and with a key turnover here and a big special teams play there, they could win a close game, just like they did in Week 3. But more often than not, the Packers are going to win this game.
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."
57 comments, Last at 24 Jan 2011, 10:47am by Will Allen