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14 Jan 2011

2010 NFC Divisional Round Preview

by Bill Barnwell

The Divisional Round of the NFC playoffs brings us two more repeat matchups from earlier in the season. In both those games, the underdog in this week's matchups posted a superior DVOA to this week's favorites. The Seahawks won with a bit of unsustainable luck, while the Packers threw away a game they should have won with mistakes that are unlikely to recur again.

So are there two upsets ready to occur this weekend? Not so fast. Both Atlanta and Chicago have seen dramatic shifts in their performance over the course of the season. The change in one team's performance has been hidden thanks to strength of schedule and some luck in close games, while the improvements of the other have been overstated by the same factors. The end result: This could end up a very interesting weekend for conventional wisdom.

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. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.

Green Bay at Atlanta



Packers on Offense
GB OFF ATL DEF
DVOA 14.7% (7) 1.3% (12)
WEI DVOA 13.4% (8) 3.3% (14)
PASS 33.0% (6) 5.3% (10)
RUSH 1.7% (11) -4.4% (13)
RED ZONE -0.9% (17) 13.4% (26)


Falcons on Offense
ATL OFF GB DEF
DVOA 10.9% (10) -10.8% (2)
WEI DVOA 8.5% (13) -14.8% (2)
PASS 30.1% (8) -17.9% (1)
RUSH -6.3% (27) -1.8% (16)
RED ZONE 6.8% (10) -19.6% (8)


Special Teams
GB ATL
DVOA -2.2% (27) 6.3% (2)
GB kickoff -5.8 (27) 8.9 (8)
ATL kickoff -10.8 (28) 17.2 (1)
GB punts 4.1 (15) 5.4 (8)
ATL punts -1.2 (19) 0.6 (19)
FG/XP 0.4 (17) 4.8 (9)

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.

The Packers outplayed the Falcons despite losing the Week 12 game between the two, 20-17. The difference between the two teams comes down to two key plays that aren't particularly sustainable: Aaron Rodgers fumbled on a quarterback sneak on the Falcons' one-yard line in the second quarter, and the Packers' special teams went all Keystone Kops on the final kickoff of the game. Well, the Green Bay special teams having a bad day isn't a shocking development, but a face mask penalty on a kickoff in a tie game with :49 left is specifically hard to re-create. There will be other ways they can fail.

They face a Falcons team, though, that should blush any time their 13-3 record is mentioned. They were 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, had 11.2 Pythagorean wins, and -- most importantly -- have slipped in two very big ways down the stretch. If the Falcons play on Sunday like they did during the second half of the season, the narrative you're likely to hear surrounding them is horribly incorrect. During the second half of the season, the Falcons couldn't stop the run and they couldn't run the ball themselves. At all.

WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL

Last week, the Packers got a career day from James Starks. Literally, he doubled his career total of rushing yards and still had 22 more to spare. Although Starks's impact wasn't quite as great as his yardage total, his performance certainly makes the Green Bay running game look more threatening than it did with Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn as the primary backs.

During the first half of the season, the Falcons' run defense was its usually-dominant self. After allowing two big plays during the first two weeks of the year to Rashard Mendenhall and Tim Hightower, they went into shutdown mode. Through Week 9, the Falcons had the league's third-best run defense per DVOA. Considering they were second in the league in 2009, there was every reason to believe that they would be able to keep up that total again. Right?

Wrong. Instead, the Falcons' run defense has absolutely collapsed during the second half of the season. Without an obvious injury to justify the flop, Atlanta's had the second-worst run defense in football from Week 10 and on. A team that had allowed a collective line of 188 carries for 773 yards and three touchdowns through Week 9 (4.1 yards per carry) bounced those figures up to 932 yards and six touchdowns on 172 attempts (5.4 yards per pop).

It's hard to pinpoint one obvious split in which they got worse. The Falcons were actually better in Power situations during the second half of the season, holding teams to a 58 percent conversion rate after hitting 71 percent during the first half, but they allowed four short-yardage touchdowns in the second half after not allowing one during the first. Rodgers's fumble prevented them from allowing five. On first-and-10, they went from allowing 5.3 yards per carry and a 30 percent Success Rate (with most of the yards coming on those two aforementioned long touchdown runs) to giving up a whopping 6.3 yards per carry and a 45 percent Success Rate during the second half.

Their schedule also got weaker during this timeframe, as they went from facing rushing offenses ranked an average of 17th in DVOA during the first half to an average of 23rd over the final eight games. Their only game against a top-ten rushing offense was in the first half, but the top-ranked Eagles were missing Michael Vick. Meanwhile, they got two games against the bottom-ranked Panthers rushing offense and couldn't stop them: Carolina averaged 7.4 yards per carry on 47 attempts against the Falcons and 3.9 yards per run against the rest of their schedule.

The Packers, however, did not particularly contribute to that decline. In their game against the Falcons, the Packers ran for just four first downs and a touchdown on 22 attempts, although they did hit a 45 percent Success Rate on those carries. They were stuffed on two third-and-1 plays (the second of which was the Rodgers fumble at the goal line) before converting on the third, thanks to a 12-yard carry by Brandon Jackson. That carry came with 11:23 to go in the fourth quarter, though, and it was the first successful run by a Packers running back all game. They were 0-for-7 before that, with Jackson and Dmitri Nance combining for -3 yards on those carries. Jackson finished with three successes in his final four attempts. A heavy pass rush and the Packers' short-yardage issues forced Rodgers to run the ball 11 different times, including seven scrambles. Six of those scrambles were effective, accounting for most of the Packers' rushing attack on the day.

In fact, stopping Rodgers from scrambling should be one of the keys for the Falcons this Saturday. Although a scramble led to Rodgers's concussion earlier this year against the Lions, he's one of the league's best passers when he gets out of the pocket and throws the ball. On 72 such charted plays, he averaged 8.1 yards per attempt and a 62 percent Success Rate, well above the 5.4 yards per attempt and 41 percent Success Rate the league averages on scrambles. Furthermore, the Falcons are a below-average team against the scramble; they average 6.1 yards per attempt and allow teams to succeed 47 percent of the time when they scramble and throw the ball. When Rodgers scrambled and threw against the Falcons, he had three completions for 62 yards and the game-tying touchdown to Jordy Nelson on a coverage scramble, an incompletion to James Jones, and a sack. The big play was a 34-yard completion to Greg Jennings that came out of the Full House formation on a flea flicker; the Packers will use the Full House to run the ball with Starks this week, but probably won't pull that play out of the cobwebs again.

Rodgers's ability to beat the blitz was discussed in last week's preview, but the Falcons represent a team that might find the big blitz an appealing option against Rodgers. Atlanta rushes three more than just about anyone in football, close to 15 percent of the time, and they're just about league average there. They're slightly worse than league average when they rush four, allowing 6.8 yards per attempt with a 51 percent Success Rate versus league averages of 6.5 yards and 55 percent. They're below-average when five come in, with 6.5 yards per attempt and a 46 percent Success Rate well below the league averages of 5.9 yards and 57 percent. With a six-man rush, though? On 34 charted plays, they allowed just 3.8 yards per attempt and had a Success Rate of 67 percent, while the league allowed 5.7 yards per attempt and had a Success Rate of 60 percent. It's not quite the opportunity that rushing six was for the Packers last week, but the Falcons would be wise to at least dial up a couple extra big blitzes of Rodgers on Sunday. They rushed six and seven each once during the Week 12 game, forcing incompletions both times.

WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL

If the Falcons are associated with anything during the Michael Smith/Thomas Dimitroff era, it's running the football with Michael Turner. Through the first half of the season, the Falcons continued to run the ball effectively: The combination of Turner and Jason Snelling were 12th in the league on the ground. In the second half, though, their rushing offense has mirrored the collapse of the rush defense. Atlanta, shockingly, had the league's worst rushing DVOA during the final eight games of the year.

Unlike the decline in their run defense, schedule wasn't a factor here. Atlanta played teams with an average run defense rank of 17.4 during the first eight games and 17.6 during the final eight. The blame for the decline, though, goes across the board. On first-and-10 plays during the first half of the season, the Falcons averaged 4.2 yards per run and had a 34 percent Success Rate. During the second half, they were down to 3.8 yards and at a Success Rate of 30 percent. Including runs on other downs, their Success Rate fell from 43.1 percent to a lowly 34.5 percent in the second half of the season. They were stuffed on 15.4 percent of carries in the first half, but that figure rose all the way to 21.2 percent in the second half; that would rate 24th in the league for a full season.

The big play has also disappeared from the running game. During the first half of the season, Atlanta had eight runs for 20 yards or more, including four runs of 30 yards or more and a 55-yarder, Turner's longest run of the year. Since Week 9, the offense has produced just four plays of 20 yards or more: Runs of 26, 27, and 39 yards by Turner, and a 20-yard scramble from Matt Ryan. One bright spot is that one of Turner's three long runs in the second half came in that Packers game.

Of course, players don't play in a vacuum. Teams know that the Falcons are built around the running game and opposing defensive coordinators sell out against the run to try and force the Falcons to throw the ball. If the issues with the Falcons' running game have more to do with the way defenses are scheming against them than their own level of play, their passing attack should get better, right? Well, it has, but not enough to make up for the decline of the rushing offense. Atlanta was 11th in passing DVOA during the first half of the season and improved to seventh during the second half, but the combination of the two saw the Falcons go from eighth to 13th in total offensive DVOA over the two halves. Matt Ryan and company saw their Success Rate on first down rise from 41 percent to 47 percent, but their yards per attempt fell from 6.5 yards in the first half to 5.4 yards in the second half.

Should the Packers try to blitz Ryan? Depends on how much faith you place in the sample from the first game. During the season, the Falcons' offense played better against blitzes than they did against the four-man rush. When teams rushed four, Ryan averaged just 5.3 yards per attempt with a 42 percent Success Rate, while the league was at 6.5 YPA and a 45 percent Success Rate. His yards per attempt improved to 6.2 YPA with five rushers and 6.6 YPA against six, while his Success Rate was 47 percent in both spots.

During the first game, though, a very conservative Ryan was effective when the Packers didn't blitz. The Packers rushed just three guys on four different third downs, and Ryan went 4-of-4 with 44 yards, a first down, and a touchdown. Against four rushers, he was almost as impressive: 10-of-12 for 91 yards with six first downs, and the only two sacks of the day for Green Bay. Although he was also 10-of-12 against a five-man rush, he produced just 62 yards and four first downs on those plays. The Packers also allow just 5.6 yards per attempt and have a 63 percent Success Rate on five-man blitzes (versus league averages of 5.9 YPA and 57 percent), so it's fair to say that they might want to dial up some blitzes and see if it continues to force Ryan to throw checkdowns.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The game could very well turn on special teams, where Atlanta ranks second and Green Bay is a lowly 27th. The Falcons' worst rank in any one category is punting, in which they rank 19th. That's almost as good as the Packers' best special teams asset, their 15th-ranked punting unit. Thanks to the combination of Michael Koenen's 23 touchbacks and great coverage, Atlanta had the league's most net value on kickoffs this year. The Falcons produced 17.2 points of field position on kicks, and their defense got to defend the longest fields in the league this year, with the offense requiring an average of over 75 yards for a touchdown. They should also get excellent field position after kickoffs, as they rank eighth on kickoff returns and the Packers are 27th on kickoffs. Getting another immaculately-timed face mask penalty might be a little tricky, though.

OUTLOOK

Yahoo users have this game as just about a coin flip -- 52 percent going for the Falcons, 48 percent for the Packers. Even though the public seems to forget about teams when they get a first-round bye and face a team that just won a close game over talented opposition, there are reasons to believe the Packers have a pretty good shot at winning this game. They've already outplayed Atlanta once in the Georgia Dome and the Falcons have been declining over the second half of the season by a far greater amount than most people realize. DVOA suggests that this is about as even of a matchup as you can put together, considering home field advantage. It's too close to call.

Seattle at Chicago


Seahawks on Offense
SEA OFF CHI DEF
DVOA -14.3% (29) -7.8% (5)
WEI DVOA -9.1% (26) -11.0% (4)
PASS -8.2% (29) -5.3% (5)
RUSH -9.4% (28) -11.4% (7)
RED ZONE -24.7% (27) -21.2% (5)
Bears on Offense
CHI OFF SEA DEF
DVOA -12.0% (28) 15.0% (29)
WEI DVOA -3.0% (21) 22.8% (32)
PASS -7.1% (28) 27.0% (29)
RUSH -3.7% (20) -0.1% (17)
RED ZONE -27.2% (28) -6.3% (13)
Special Teams
SEA CHI
DVOA 5.8% (3) 7.2% (1)
SEA kickoff 11.2 (6) 14.6 (3)
CHI kickoff 19.4 (2) -0.7 (18)
SEA punts -0.3 (22) 26.6 (1)
CHI punts 5.2 (9) 0.6 (20)
FG/XP -1.6 (26) 1.1 (16)

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.

In Week 6, the Bears hosted these same Seahawks in Chicago and lost, 23-20. An 89-yard Devin Hester punt return touchdown with 1:54 left made the game look closer than it actually was, as Seattle's DVOA (13.3%) was well above Chicago's (-24.4%). After the Bears lost to the Redskins a week later, they hit their bye at 4-3, one Calvin Johnson misstep away from a losing record.

The Bears came off their bye and promptly went 7-1 before losing to the Packers in a meaningless game to end their season. Naturally, the bye week has been seen as a turning point for the team, with particular credence paid to an emphasis on the run. (And yes, that article is as bad as you might expect.) Through this piece, we'll look at how Chicago's performance has changed during the bye to see if the underlying performance matches their change in the record.

There's one obvious factor that's both assisted the Bears to success since the bye and hurt them in the first game against Seattle: Injuries. Both guard Roberto Garza and outside linebacker Lance Briggs were inactive in the first tilt; that may not seem like a lot to fans of the Packers, but for this Bears team, that was a rough week. Chicago's starters missed a total of just 11 games all season, the lowest figure in the league. Health has been one of the biggest drivers of their improvement during the second half, as only one Bears starter -- Pisa Tinoisamoa -- has missed a start since the bye. Even Chicago's backups are healthy. The Bears have just two players on injured reserve, fourth-string halfback Harvey Unga and reserve linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer. Meanwhile, Seattle's starters have missed 67 games this season, with 11 different players currently on IR.

WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL

Matt Hasselbeck was well-suited for the Saints. His numbers against the blitz were covered in last week's preview, and he proceeded to have a huge game against Gregg Williams's aggressive blitz packages. The Bears, though? The Bears are not the Saints. The Bears are just about the polar opposite of the Saints, and the reason why is Julius Peppers.

In 2008 and 2009, injuries and an absent pass rush basically forced Lovie Smith to abandon his Tampa-2 defense. As a quick refresher, the Tampa-2 relies on the four down linemen to get pressure and the back seven to cover receivers until they get there. There are four zones at the intermediate level, with the two cornerbacks and two outside linebackers expected to challenge underneath routes and block throwing lanes. The middle linebacker drops back and plays centerfield, while the two safeties head towards the sideline and handle throws over the top. Without pressure, though, the Bears were forced to change things up. They placed star linebackers Brian Urlacher (when healthy) and Lance Briggs in a "mug" look, crowding the A-gaps on either side of the center to try and intimidate the quarterback while sacrificing coverage behind them. The big blitz became a Smith staple a year ago, as the Bears rushed six or more defenders on 16.7 percent of passes, the third-highest rate in the league. They sent four just 56.4 percent of the time, which was 22nd.

The arrival of Peppers has changed all that. With a dominant pass rusher on one side of the field and a healthy secondary behind them, Smith has called off the hounds and seen a dramatic improvement in his team's performance. Chicago has rushed four on 72.2 percent of their charted plays, the third-highest rate in the league. (Houston and Detroit are the only teams that blitzed less frequently.) Meanwhile, they've sent six or more on just 1.4 percent of plays. That's the eighth-lowest big blitz rate in the league. Although Peppers had just eight sacks this season, he has 27 quarterback hurries and 14 quarterback hits through 14.5 charted games, right in line with his performance from a year ago in Carolina (28 hurries and 10 quarterback hits). Whispers that Peppers is prone to taking plays off have just about disappeared, and he's turned Israel Idonije into an actual threat on the other side of the line. Idonije doubled his career sack total this season with eight of his own. Chicago's defense also got better as the season went along; the pass defense went from 13th in the first half of the season to third, while their run defense went from 13th to fifth.

Hasselbeck will attack the Tampa-2 with, well, veteranness. His only real moment of sustained effectiveness in the first game was on the opening drive, when the Seahawks went no-huddle and Hasselbeck went 4-for-4 with 76 yards and a touchdown pass to Deon Butler. Each time, Hasselbeck used either play action, a pump fake, or both to manipulate the Bears and create space for his receivers. He opened the game with play-action in a two-tight end set; the Bears countered by pushing into a 4-3 Over look, with the strong-side linebacker on the line of scrimmage. The play-action created space for John Carlson 12 yards downfield, and he rolled for a couple more. On third-and-6, the Bears showed the "mug" look before dropping back into a pretty conventional Tampa-2; Hasselbeck looked at his running back on a swing route, drawing Tim Jennings towards the line, before completing a pass to Mike Williams behind the corner for a first down. All it took was one glance.

At that point, the Seahawks went no-huddle and picked up two big plays in a row to score. The no-huddle kept the Bears in that 4-3 Over alignment and Urlacher blitzed upon the snap, but the Seahawks were able to both pick it up and execute both play action and a pump fake up the middle. That locked the safeties in place and created a passing lane for Hasselbeck to loft the ball over Jennings to Williams for 24 yards. Finally, the Seahawks stayed in the no huddle and got a very conventional Tampa-2 look from the Bears. Hasselbeck pump-faked over the middle to the slot receiver, locking safety Danieal Manning in place, before lofting a lob over the top to Deon Butler. Butler beat Charles Tillman, who was clearly expecting help, and gathered in Hasselbeck's only touchdown of the day. Outside of Williams, the Seahawks simply don't have the receivers to make big plays against the Bears. They'll need to continue employing treachery and deception to beat a superior defense.

Well, they could also just get Marshawn Lynch to break six tackles again. Lynch's incredible run should ensure him a place on highlight reels for decades, but he's still the same back that posted a -15.0% DVOA and 44 percent Success Rate during the regular season. He made his debut for the Seahawks in the regular-season matchup against the Bears, and it was a pretty good indicator of how he's played for them since. He started off the game with two easy runs for a total of 21 yards ... and then had a total of 23 yards on his subsequent 14 carries. Six of his carries went for no gain or a loss, which isn't surprising. The Bears stuffed opposing runners on 26 percent of their carries, the highest rate in the league. Seattle gets stuffed on 27 percent of their carries, which is more than any other offense, and Lynch was stuffed on 28 percent of his carries as a Seahawk.

As good as the Bears run defense was in short-yardage, they were strangely awful in Power situations. Teams convert 71 percent of those carries against the Bears, the second-highest rate in the league. That could be of some comfort to the Seahawks, who convert Power situations just 48 percent of the time, the fourth-lowest rate in the league. Lynch only got one power carry in the first game, punching in a touchdown on first-and-goal from the one-yard line.

WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL

Articles like this one from ChicagoBears.com exemplify the narrative surrounding the Bears' post-bye turnaround: They ran the ball more and "it's probably no coincidence" that their win-loss record improved dramatically. Long-time FO readers, of course, will recognize this exact argument as our website's raison d'etre. The very first article at Football Outsiders and the very first bit of data gathered by Aaron Schatz resulted in the debunking of this very concept. It's worth taking a deeper look into the Bears offense, though. Are they really running the ball more frequently, or is it a product of their record? Have they produced more offense as a result? Which changes stand out? And how will those changes affect this week's matchup with the Seahawks?

On the whole, the Chicago offense has certainly improved since their bye. The Bears were 30th in offensive DVOA through Week 7, but improved to 19th after the week off. The quality of their rushing offense has been the primary driver in that improvement, as the Bears have gone from a -13.6% DVOA (27th in the NFL) during the pre-bye span to a -0.2% DVOA (15th) since. It's hard to suggest that an improvement to 15th would be enough to push the Bears from 3-4 to 7-2, but it's unquestionably gotten better over the timeframe. The actual aspects of what has changed -- and what hasn't -- since the bye are what's really interesting, though.

To try and eliminate the statistical impact of the Bears running out the clock in the second half and get a better look at how they're actually planning on using their offense outside of specific game situations, let's start by looking strictly at plays from the first half. The Bears are running the ball more frequently there, too, but the effect isn't quite as pronounced as suggested. Before the bye, the Bears ran the ball on 35 percent of their first half plays; since, they've run the ball 44 percent of the time. They average more yards per carry, going from a rushing average of 4.3 yards per carry to 4.9 yards per carry, but their Success Rate has actually fallen from 40 percent to 38 percent. An increase in yards per carry with a decrease in Success Rate suggests that a rise in big plays, and that's been the case. Chicago has 11 runs of 20 yards or more this season; nine of them have come since the bye.

The most tangible difference, though, has come in short-yardage. Before the bye, the Bears were 5-for-15 in what we define as "Power" running situations (carries on third or fourth down with two yards to go or fewer, as well as carries on first or second down inside the opposition's two-yard line). That includes an incredible 0-for-6 performance from the one-yard line. We wrote about how bad the Bears had been near the goal line in FOA 2010, but even the worst goal-line team in the league should be able to hit a 60 percent shot once or twice. Since then, things have turned around. Chicago has been 7-of-12 in Power situations since the bye, including a respectable 5-of-8 inside the opposition's two-yard line. Their final conversion rate of 44 percent was still the worst in the league, but there's at least signs of improvement in a small sample. Seattle ranks 27th against the run in Power situations, so the Bears can live in hope of picking up a short-yardage conversion here and there.

After the first game between these two teams, though, mentioning conversions to the Bears might have been a dangerous thing. In Week 6, the Bears faced 12 third downs on offense. On each, Jay Cutler dropped back to pass. The results: Four sacks, six incompletions, and two completions short of the sticks. That's right -- the Bears were an astounding 0-for-12 on third down. It was one of only eight such "ofers" all year, and only one team had more cracks at one in a game without picking up a first down: Those same Bears, who went 0-for-13 on third down against the Giants two weeks prior. As you might suspect, they have gotten much better converting third downs. They were at an astonishing 18 percent before the bye, but are all the way up to 41 percent since. Seattle's shown no propensity for pulling off those sort of miracles, as they allowed teams to convert on 42 percent of third downs before the Bears game and 40 percent afterwards.

The other factor linked to the Bears' upswing is the settling of their offensive line and its ability to protect Cutler. Following Garza's return to the lineup after the bye week, an ever-changing offensive line settled into an alignment that stayed the course for the rest of the season: Frank Omiyale at left tackle, former left tackle Chris Williams at left guard, mainstay Olin Kreutz at center, Garza at right guard, and seventh-round pick J'Marcus Webb at right tackle. Have they done a better job of protecting Cutler? Depends on which stat you're looking at. Cutler's sack rate has gone down, but only from the ridiculous pre-bye rate of 13.0 percent to 9.1 percent. Even if we use that post-bye rate, the only quarterback in the league who has been sacked more frequently in 300 or more attempts is Jason Campbell, and if Campbell had thrown four more passes without being sacked, Cutler's "improved" sack rate would be the highest in the league on its own. Meanwhile, our Game Charting data suggests that Cutler's being hurried more frequently since the bye, going from an even 20 percent through the Redskins game to 27.3 percent with this new offensive line alignment. (Note that we're still missing the second half of Week 16 and the entire Week 17 game against the Packers in the Bears' charting data).

Should the Seahawks blitz Cutler? The numbers suggest that five could be the magic number. While Cutler's yards per attempt and Success Rate are just about league-average against three- and four-man rushes, his yards per attempt dip down to 5.3 against a five-man rush (league average: 5.9). We only have 22 six-man rushes charted against the Bears, but Cutler's tore them up for 7.5 yards per attempt with a 45 percent Success Rate (against league averages of 5.7 YPA and 40 percent). Of Seattle's six sacks on Cutler during the first matchup, four of them came on a five-man blitz, and another came on a six-man blitz. They do need to make sure they contain Cutler, though, as he is devastating when he scrambles. Chicago averages 7.9 yards per attempt and has a 62 percent Success Rate when Cutler is forced to scramble; that yards per attempt rate is behind just Green Bay and Indianapolis, and only Aaron Rodgers can match Cutler's Success Rate on the run. Must come with practice.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Last week, the one clear advantage the Seahawks had on the Saints was their work on special teams. This week, that won't be the case; nobody gets ahead of the Bears, who have the league's best special teams. Chicago is just average on all kicking plays, but they have the league's best punt returns and are third on kick returns -- behind only the Jets and Seahawks. All told, the Bears have produced an incredible 41.2 points of field position versus an average team on returns. Chicago has the league's best average starting field position on offense, requiring an average of just 66.6 yards to go for a touchdown. Olindo Mare has led the league's sixth-best kickoff unit this year, and after a kickoff out of bounds and an interception to start the game, the Seahawks were able to start the Saints off with an average of 78 yards to go for a touchdown. If Mare and the coverage units can do that to the Bears, they deserve to get that Hester "You are ridiculous" quote attached to their names.

OUTLOOK

Last week was a far more promising matchup for the Seahawks than this one. Their offense fit New Orleans's defense far better than it does Chicago's. They had a distinct advantage -- special teams -- that they don't enjoy this week. They took advantage of an injury to a key player, safety Malcolm Jenkins, but the Bears don't have any injuries to speak of. Most importantly, they were at home.

They're not going to be able to hold the Bears without a third-down conversion again, so the only foreseeable way the Seahawks will pick this game up is a Cutler implosion, a game where the pass protection collapses and Cutler throws four picks. Seattle's 28th in sack rate and 25th in interceptions per drive, so why would they be the team to force Cutler into his bad habits? Even if their improvement since the bye week has been overstated, the Bears have to be considered huge favorites here.


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." Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 14 Jan 2011

41 comments, Last at 15 Jan 2011, 9:56pm by Sid

Comments

1
by SammyGlick :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 4:54pm

anyone else seeing this in all italics?

2
by Tom Gower :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 5:04pm

Fixed.

3
by Fanatical Yankee :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 5:11pm

No.

Try shifting your computer 15 degrees to the right. :)

4
by Zach (not verified) :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 5:16pm

Bill, I thought it was odd that you spent a paragraph talking about Julius Peppers and his impact but didn't mention the fact that he was largely a non-factor in the Week 6 game. Russell Okung might have struggled with injuries this year, but he's been one of the better left tackles in the league when he's been healthy, and that made a big difference in the first game between those two teams.

5
by Sid :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 5:16pm

Is the AFC preview out?

6
by Sid :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 5:16pm

ah, I checked Twitter. About an hour and a half away.

7
by Chris Dizon (not verified) :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 5:20pm

Don't you think the "The Bears ran the ball more" is more of an oversimplification than being incorrect? As you note, Bears offense picked up after their third downs and sack rates improved -- could that not be partially attributed to more balance (e.g. getting in less 3rd and long situations, being less predictable on offense). Also, is there any way statistically to see whether receivers have done a better job getting open in the second half, or if Cutler has been doing a better job of getting rid of the ball?

Great article.

8
by Charles Jake (not verified) :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 5:22pm

While I eschew cliches as much as the next FO-er, there are two important things to remember about the Bears' new emphasis on running the ball. It has 1. Kept Jay Cutler alive, and 2. made play action more effective.

I may not be Jamaal Charles v. Thomas Jones, but there is a HUGE dropoff from Matt Forte to Chester Taylor. I don't know what's happened to Taylor, but at this point, I would strongly consider activating Khalil Bell to spell Forte.

11
by tuluse :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 6:00pm

Not just play action, but kept defense more off balance in general. In the Seattle game in the 2nd quarter, Martz called 16 straight passes across 3 drives. When you are that obvious about what you are going to do, it's a lot easier to stop.

20
by Marko :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 7:58pm

I'll echo the thoughts of the above posters. Anyone who closely follows the Bears can see a tremendous difference in their overall success, offensive efficiency, and point production since they began to focus on having a more balanced run-pass ratio. In addition to helping keep Jay Cutler alive and making play action more effective, they also dramatically reduced their number of turnovers and kept opposing defenses off-balance.

It is unfair to equate the praise for the Bears' more balanced approach on offense (by coaches, players, media and fans) with the idea that FO loves to lampoon about the need to "establish the run." But that is exactly what this preview does.

21
by Bill Barnwell :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 8:07pm

Cutler play action figures:

1-8: 12/21 Success Rate (57.1%), 10.5 YPA, 8 FD, 1 TD, 1 INT, 1 sack, 1 scramble for FD
9-16.5: 25/42 Success Rate (59.5%), 6.3 YPA, 11 FD, 6 TD, 1 INT, 1 sack, 3 scrambles (one for FD, one for TD)

9
by JasonG (not verified) :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 5:41pm

First, excellent, EXCELLENT article.

Two extras about the Bears. The D is elite in takeaways, but got none in the Week 6 meeting. Repeatable? Not likely. You could say the same thing about the zero sacks.

Second, any insight into the effectiveness and productivity of Cutler's play action pre- and post-bye? Without any data it seemed that was a very valuable byproduct of the Bears' renewed rushing effort.

10
by Bjorn Nittmo (not verified) :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 5:42pm

Nauseating for a Giants fan to see the -120% DVOAs the Seahawks and Bears racked up against the G-men (though perhaps tempered, if that's the right word, by the Packers' near triple-digit DVOA in their game).

12
by paddypat (not verified) :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 6:46pm

I find it a bit strange that the pick in GB @ ATL is assessed as close to pick 'em. Weighted DVOA indicated that GB is edging towards a 2 : 1 advantage over ATL. I guess I don't really know how predictive DVOA differential is supposed to be, but since home teams in the divisional round are averaging about 58 % wins in recent years, wouldn't do the math something like this, (GB WEI DVOA 28) + (ATL WEI DVOA 16.2* 1.08 [for divisional homefield] = 17.5) = 45.5 and then find the odds by doing GB WEI DVOA 28 / 45.5 = 61.5%

That seems about right to me, GB odds of winning 61.5%
Anyone else? Here would be the rest of the odds by that rationale:

NE 80.7% chance of winning

PIT 59.05% chance of winning

and then... yeah, I don't have any idea how to calculate the difference between Chicago and Seattle except to say that this type of calculation would say 0% chance... hehehe

14
by paddypat (not verified) :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 7:24pm

On second thought, I suppose the homefield advantage really should be added in after the DVOA scores are compared, so maybe it's more like this?

GB 58.3% chance
NE 86% chance
PIT 61.75% chance
CHI something like 106% chance of winning... keehee

17
by paddypat (not verified) :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 7:26pm

Seriously, does anyone have any idea what the actual relationship between these figures is? How much better Chicago should be expected to perform than Seattle just on the basis of DVOA and weighted DVOA? In other words, 17.1 DVOA team meets -29.0 DVOA team; how likely is the former team to win?

15
by Eddo :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 7:25pm

First, Aaron has hinted at (explicitly stated?) that home field advantage is worth around 17% DVOA, so you could theoretically adjust Atlanta up 8.5% (to 24.7%) and Green Bay down 8.5% (to 19.5%).

Secondly, DVOA isn't designed to work so that (DVOA_x)/(DVOA_x + DVOA_y) - where x and y are the two teams - equals approximate winning percentage.

In fact, the Playoff Odds Report implies that Atlanta has a 56.9% chance of winning. That's calculated using team aggregate DVOA (rather that splits, which I assume factor into the premium picks), so that's probably the number you're trying to derive.

(Other favorites, according to the Playoff Odds Report, are Chicago (92.1%), New England (68.7%), and Pittsburgh (58.6%).)

19
by paddypat (not verified) :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 7:30pm

Yeah, I know what the figures are that they posted on the playoff odds. I haven't seen the 17% homefield figure before though; that's pretty interesting. It kind of suggests that things like Detroit winning at Miami and New Orleans winning at Atlanta really shouldn't happen, or at least should be more rare than they seem to be. At a regular season record of home team wins 56% of the time (as was the case in 2010) 17% DVOA seems rather high for a homefield advantage. I would have thought something more like 8%, probably figuring a bigger or lesser swing depending on the team in question.

22
by tuluse :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 8:32pm

DVOA compares teams to average. Theoretically, a 0% DVOA team should be 8-8, which I think means a 100% DVOA team should be 16-0. That would be one team being twice as good as another, NFL teams usually aren't that far apart.

Looking at week 17 DVOA ratings, I'm not even sure the Patriots are twice as good as the Cardinals (44.7% vs -36.2%).

It looks like you think the scale of DVOA is way different than it actually is.

28
by paddypat (not verified) :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 11:36pm

Also interesting. I know the system is centered around zero with a zero team being 8-8, but since 16-0 was about 50% DVOA, I simply figured the scale was about -40/+40 more or less, assuming a range of something like 2-14 to 14-2, which covers almost all NFL teams. In which case, if one team is 15.5% or so, we would expect a record of something like 10-6, and if another team is 55.8%, well, that's almost off the chart, with a projection of about 16-0, meanwhile, Seattle at -29%, should be somewhere between 3-13 and 4-12. I mean, I think that interpretation of DVOA maps fairly well onto team performance, but maybe the difference between 4-12 and 10-6 just isn't what I'm suggesting it is?

32
by B :: Sat, 01/15/2011 - 9:44am

DVOA is defense adjusted value over average, so a 0% team is a team that gets the average expected value on each play adjusted for situation, etc. A 100% team gets twice as much value.
So a 100% team is twice as good as an average team, but that doesn't mean they would be expected to go 16-0.

13
by dave crockett (not verified) :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 6:46pm

Disclaimer: Seahawks fan.

I won't argue that point that Chicago should be a heavy favorite. It's obvious. I do, however, take some exception to the particulars. It is VERY difficult to see where the Bears have any schematic or matchup advantage beyond pure talent. I can see why the author argues that the Bears won't play as poorly as in week 6. What I don't see is why Seattle will necessarily play worse, especially offensively. I thought author would make the case for Lance Briggs, but he seems to be suggesting that Chicago's Tampa 2 will be more disruptive this time. Seattle's receivers evidently can't beat zone coverage. (That's preposterous. Zone is the only coverage they *can* beat.)

Two back-to-back statements in particular were "Guh?" headscratchers.

1. "Outside of Williams, the Seahawks simply don't have the receivers to make big plays against the Bears."

Shouldn't Seattle prefer to play against a zone? Doesn't that place a premium on consistent execution--precise routes and throws and sure hands--over trying to hit home runs? Seattle's WRs all go over the middle and (apart from Golden Tate) all catch the ball well.

2. "They'll need to continue employing treachery and deception to beat a superior defense."

No problem with describing the Bear defense as "superior." But how is it that beating a zone is made to sound like some sort of unsustainable, chicken-bone-reading witchcraft? Hasselbeck's been using pace, gaze, and pump-fakes to beat zones for a long time. In the first game he marched down the field, got an early lead and when it was clear the defense could hold it the offense played field position. How is that not repeatable?

Those two innocuous statements would be easily dismissed, except the author whiffs on the single biggest reason for Seattle's offensive success in the first game (meager as it was). As critical as he is to their scheme, Peppers was a *complete* non-factor in week 6. Seattle left Okung on Peppers mostly unprotected and he basically pitched a shut out.

Maybe Peppers was injured, or hungover, or had flu-like symptoms. Maybe Okung got lucky. Maybe it's too much to expect a rookie tackle to repeat the trick a second time, but how does the author not even mention the matchup as important? Hasselbeck was rarely harassed in that game. Cutler, on the other hand, could barely get the snap before being harried. I can see why one might expect the Bear o-line to play better. I'm not so sure Seattle's o-line cannot repeat its performance.

24
by roguerouge :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 9:46pm

If I recall the incessant yammering of NFL announcers, the Bears move Peppers from side to side for much of the game. He might be on Okung or he might not.

26
by Marko :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 10:00pm

That is definitely true. Actually, Peppers has discretion to switch sides when he wants to. That's why sometimes Peppers lines up on one side and then switches with Idonije (or Wootton or whoever is opposite him) before the snap.

27
by dave crockett (not verified) :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 10:17pm

They didn't in week 6, probably feeling like the rookie Okung was the matchup to exploit.

38
by ptp (not verified) :: Sat, 01/15/2011 - 6:06pm

Okay, but if he decides to switch to Locklear, then he's going against the strong side with the tight end available to chip in, so I don't know that I'd say switching is necessarily going to work well either.

39
by ptp (not verified) :: Sat, 01/15/2011 - 6:07pm

Okay, but if he decides to switch to Locklear, then he's going against the strong side with the tight end available to chip in, so I don't know that I'd say switching is necessarily going to work well either.

30
by alexbond :: Sat, 01/15/2011 - 1:09am

I agree. Hasselbeck was born to read zone coverages, it's one of the only things he can do at this point. I think if Okung goes 2 for 2 against Peppers this is anyone's game, if Peppers is Peppers then Hawks have no chance. I do think the Hawks D has a decent chance of pressuring Cutler without having to bring constant DB blitzes - Clemons and Brock at the ends have both really taken steps forward with their game in the past month. That said, this is going to come down to 2 things - is Peppers going to get blocked and will Martz call protection schemes that get Cutler killed?

16
by Mike Fuller (not verified) :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 7:25pm

the Falcons run D took a fall from week 10 on and you haven't figured it out? That's when Kim Z of the Atlanta housewives found out she was pregnant by Biermann. Dude is not focused.
Next your going to tell me you have no idea why Jordan quit basketball to play baseball...

25
by roguerouge :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 9:46pm

I highly doubt that.

18
by ammek :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 7:29pm

Several times in the article it is stated that Green Bay outplayed Atlanta in week 12 even though it lost. Yet the DVOA graphic shows nothing of the sort: Atlanta is about 25%, Green Bay close to zero.

23
by B :: Fri, 01/14/2011 - 9:21pm

I like how the Seattle graph looks like a smiley face. A green, green smiley face.

29
by Ryan (not verified) :: Sat, 01/15/2011 - 12:37am

@ammek

I think that is because FO's rankings perceive the Packers as a much stronger opponent than the Falcons. For Atlanta, beating the #3 team in the league is easily their best result of the year, whereas for the Packers, losing a close game on the road to Atlanta is approximately an average performance.

31
by Al (not verified) :: Sat, 01/15/2011 - 1:37am

I'm surprised to see there was no mention of weather conditions, type of field nor field conditions. Which team and what positions does temps around 20, wind chill around 10, winds 15-20 and playing on a cow pasture favor.

33
by Misfit74 :: Sat, 01/15/2011 - 12:56pm

I'm surprised no mention of Okung's ability in the first game to nullify Julius Peppers. Key omission from this article or myth?

I think if Okung again plays well vs. Peppers, and again with little or no help, it will impact what the Bears want to do defensively.

Will the Bears play Peppers on the opposite side to take advantage of the much-maligned Sean Locklear? I expect Okung to block one-on-one and if Seattle give help, it will be to Locklear's side.

37
by Insancipitory :: Sat, 01/15/2011 - 5:49pm

Okung had help with Peppers from time to time in the week 6 matchup. The Seahawks did a good job of mixing stuff up for Peppers, but when left alone with Peppers Okung did great. Now how much of that is Okung, and how much of that is Peppers and his rep for taking games off.

Locklear has played well against Peppers in the past too, see 2005 NFC Championship game. Hasslebeck gave a little move to slip Peppers of the right side, and converted for the TD iirc. The only other thing Peppers did that game was run a long Alexander run down from behind on the opposite side of the field.

/Not saying he never takes them over, see the 1st Bears v the Packers. But he takes them off too.

40
by tuluse :: Sat, 01/15/2011 - 6:18pm

I have never seen Peppers give anything but very good effort on any play I have watched. His "rep" just makes me roll my eyes. There are like a dozen other explanations for why he didn't have a good game that particular week.

34
by Steve_C (not verified) :: Sat, 01/15/2011 - 1:22pm

I agree strongly that the Packers are certainly the more talented team than the Falcons, especially when considering the massive injury issues they dealt with this year, however for whatever reason the Packers win less than DVOA predicts and the Falcons win more than predicted. This is not just true for this year, this is true for the last three years.

2008: Packers 10.6% DVOA (Ranked 11th) 6-10 Record
2008: Falcons 5.6% DVOA (Ranked 16th) 11-5 Record

2009: Packers 30.4% DVOA (Ranked 2nd) 11-5 Record
2009: Falcons 1.8% DVOA (Ranked 18th) 9-7 Record

2010: Packers 23.3% DVOA (Ranked 3rd) 10-6 Record
2010: Falcons 15.9% DVOA (Ranked 8th) 13-3 Record

So the 2008 Packers who went 6-10 were better by DVOA than either the Falcons teams that went 9-7 in 2009 or 11-5 in 2008? And they were only slightly worse than the 2010 Falcons who went 13-3. What gives?

I know stat people despise the idea of "clutchness" or the ability to perform under pressure but we now have a three year trend of the Falcons winning close games and the Packers losing close games.

2008 - 2010 Record in games decided by 7 points or less

Packers 9-17 (6-5 at Home, 3-12 Road)
Falcons 16-7 (10-3 at Home, 5-4 Road)

I guess we could ascribe this to "luck" or write this off to small sample size or explain via anecdote all the reasons the Packers close losses were really, actually wins. Or we could try to understand why one team out consistently out performs DVOA and the other does the opposite.

No worries though Packers' fans. According to DVOA this game will not be close.

35
by akn (not verified) :: Sat, 01/15/2011 - 3:56pm

Or maybe, you know, DVOA isn't as accurate or as reliable for predictions as you believe it to be.

36
by Andrew Potter :: Sat, 01/15/2011 - 4:21pm

Schedule strength? (I'm not interested in a number, I'm interested in who they played.)

The 2008 Packers, for example, played the NFC South in the year where no team was below .500 and the AFC South in one of its best recent years (Tennessee 13-3, Indy 12-4, Houston 8-8), plus Seattle and a strong Dallas team. It's easy to see how, given that tough a schedule, a team could have a strong DVOA but a poor record.

41
by Sid :: Sat, 01/15/2011 - 9:56pm

Atlanta's big advantage on special teams showing up

weems TD.