A look at fourth-down decision making in 2014 highlights Sean Payton, Marc Trestman, and... wait, this can't be right... Jim Caldwell? Plus: Chip Kelly may be less aggressive than you think he is.
08 Dec 2013
by Rivers McCown and Andrew Potter
Listed percentages are the overall DVOA of each team heading into the game.
Andrew Potter: This is one of those games that is, by a quirk of scheduling, far less compelling than a contest between likely division champions ought to be. If it had been scheduled for the first weekend in November, it would have been fascinating: Andy Dalton and Cincinnati appeared to finally have a dynamic offense having crushed the Jets 49-9, and the Colts were top ten by DVOA in every facet of the game after their Week 8 bye. Now, both teams are coming off a win against what was a potential wild card team, but neither has impressed us all that much since October 27th.
Rivers McCown: Last week we went over how bad the Colts have been since the bye. The thing is, even if Dalton is out of favor, and even if Geno Atkins and Leon Hall are out, the Bengals haven't suffered that much of a dropoff. They've only had one week with a negative DVOA since the Week 4 embarrassment against the Browns. In fact, if Good Andy Dalton (circa Weeks 6-8) shows up, this game could be a blowout. If he doesn't ... well, the Colts are still really bad. It's still up in the air if Greg Toler will be able to play.
But hey, Tennessee is playing Denver, so Indianapolis will likely clinch by default! (The two sweetest words in the English language!)
Andrew Potter: Which is, I think, another reason why this game has lost its luster. It's more important to the better team. Since their bye, neither the Colts offense nor the Colts defense has been a threat to anybody outside the AFC South, and Andy Dalton hasn't been great over that period but he's still served up six touchdowns in the past three weeks. The Bengals have lost their best cornerback, but the Colts have lost by far their best receiver. It would, it seems to me, take a disastrous performance for Cincinnati to lose this.
Rivers McCown: I wouldn't exactly put that past Andy Dalton.
I've seen a few people downtalking Andrew Luck because he can't overcome the rest of this offense. To those people, I say: you try keeping your DVOA high when 18 of your 34 targets go to Stanley Havili, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and LaVon Brazill.
Andrew Potter: Don’t forget about the line he’s playing behind, the running back situation, and the collapse of the defense. Luck is a good player, and obviously merits his position as a NFL starting quarterback, but he isn’t going to win games all on his own just yet.
Rivers McCown: I'd argue no player can really win a game all on his own anyway. But you definitely need more help than Luck has been given. If the two quarterbacks in this game switched teams, I think we'd have a championship contender and a clear contender for the No. 1 pick. I think that about says it all here.
Rivers McCown: The Browns' possible quarterback options for this game are a concussed Jason Campbell, trick shot master Alex Tanney, and Caleb Hanie, who was last seen ruining the Bears' 2011 season. They just lost to the Jaguars at home. They are now playing the presumptive No. 2 seed on the road. I know the Pats have played some down games this year, but can you actually think of a reason to be optimistic that the Browns will keep this close?
Andrew Potter: Wind and fumbles? I really don’t know, especially if Campbell can't play. In that case, suggestions are that Hanie is more likely to start than Tanney, but I'm not sure how much the identity of the Browns starting quarterback matters. Cleveland's defense continued to suck at defending tight ends last week, allowing touchdowns to both Clay Harbor and Marcedes Lewis, and they only have to stop Rob Gronkowski this time. Oh, and Shane Vereen, but they can't cover receiving backs either. Yes, this could be ugly.
The Patriots offense hasn't had a passing DVOA below 44.5% since Week 8: is their pass offense now completely fixed, or do they still have identifiable issues?
Rivers McCown: The "fix" was apparently "letting Rob Gronkowski play football." As we talked about in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the deepest negative splits the Pats had last year were the games he didn't play in versus the ones he did. Even when they lost to Baltimore in the AFC Championship game, he wasn't around.
To be honest, I'd rather see Alex Tanney play. The Browns are going nowhere, they've got room to evaluate players, and one idea I'm growing on is that quarterbacks with no tape on them can fool defenses for a bit while defensive coordinators figure out their tendencies.
Andrew Potter: I’m all for seeing what you’ve got once the season’s done, but is Bill Belichick really the guy you want to be trying that against? If Talib can stay on the field, the Patriots have the personnel to match up to Josh Gordon in a way that Pittsburgh and Jacksonville didn’t. That would leave your rookie quarterback dependent on Davone Bess, Greg Little, and Chris Ogbonnaya to catch his passes. I had thought that the wild card could be Jordan Cameron, but the Patriots have been more effective than I realized against tight ends: tenth by DVOA, allowing 55 yards per game. The obvious way to attack the Patriots defense is on the ground, but the Browns don’t seem to have the personnel to do that effectively either.
Rivers McCown: I don't think Talib is any better than Ike Taylor. Maybe he's played better this season, but I don't regard him as a shutdown corner or anything. Very good corner, certainly, but not someone that could eliminate Josh Gordon from the game all on his own.
As for the rest of your paragraph: what is the benefit for the Browns to win this game? If it happens on the way to giving young players playing time, well, you've probably discovered your young players are better than you thought. If it doesn't, you improve your draft position. I don't think you're trying to scheme results at this point. Your earlier results have already dictated how unimportant that is.
Andrew Potter: I think you're either underestimating Aqib Talib or overestimating Ike Taylor.
I see what you're saying about the Browns. I just don't think this Patriots side is the team I'd want to try it against. It's one thing potentially suffering a heavy loss because the other team's better than you or your young players didn't come through like you hoped. It's another thing entirely guaranteeing a heavy loss because you just don't care.
Rivers McCown: I would say that the more time I spend watching games, the less I feel a cornerback should be judged on one individual season.
Andrew Potter: The team whose quarterback has the worst VOA (no opponent adjustments, minimum 100 passes) in the league hosts the team whose quarterback has the worst DVOA. Or, if you prefer, the team with the 31st ranked DVOA pass offense (31st in total offense) hosts the team with the 30th ranked pass offense (29th in total offense). Fortunately for the Raiders, Matt McGloin has been a much more effective passer in his three starts than Terrelle Pryor was in his eight (Matt Flynn infamously started the first game Pryor missed, against Washington). Unfortunately for the Raiders, the Jets have a much better defense than any of the teams he's previously started against.
Rivers McCown: A day that will forever live in Flynnfamy.
Yeah, Oakland has actually forged together a halfway decent running game behind Rashad Jennings this year. You can forget all about running on the Jets, since they have a -32.3% run defense DVOA, far and away the best in the league. So that'll take Oakland from a one-dimensional offense to a zero-dimensional offense, and that's ... not optimal.
Andrew Potter: Optimal is unlikely to be a suitable descriptor for either of these offenses, but at least the Jets have their defense to fall back on. Oakland has … a good kickoff team? (Seriously, +6.3 DVOA, second in the league behind the Rams.) That'd be nice if they got more than a couple of plays a game out of it. Do safety kicks count as kickoffs or punts? Maybe they'll get an extra opportunity that way.
Rivers McCown: I wonder what kind of odds you could get on one of the defenses outscoring one of the offenses.
So, anyway, Geno Smith. Do we think this is a function of game plan, his talent, the Jets receivers, or a perfect mix of all three of them? Because it's hard to be this bad with just one or two simple problems.
Andrew Potter: I’m not ready to bury Smith yet. Firstly, his division has three of the top nine DVOA pass defenses, and he’s also played against Baltimore (14th), Tampa Bay (13th), Tennessee (12th), New Orleans (eighth), and Cincinnati (second). That means ten of his twelve games have come against pass defenses our numbers rank fourteenth or higher, and more than half against teams in the top nine. I realize that there’s some synergy there -- Smith looks worse for playing against good defenses, and the defenses look better for playing against the Jets offense -- but it’s worth pointing that out. He also still has third-ranked Carolina and seventh-ranked Miami to come.
Secondly, nobody has looked good on this offense in a long time. You get the occasional game here and there from Jeff Cumberland or Stephen Hill or Jeremy Kerley (usually against the Patriots, much to Aaron’s displeasure) or even Smith himself, but the line is bad, the backs are bad, the receivers are bad, and the quarterback may well be bad too but it’s kinda’ hard to tell for sure. His top targets last week were David Nelson, Kellen Winslow, and Bilal Powell -- at least Andrew Luck has Coby Fleener and T.Y. Hilton before he hits the dregs.
I think with Smith, we're left trying to discern if the change from early-season Smith (good deep ball, blah results) to now (good at ... nothing?) is about the scheme or about defenses figuring him out. While I haven't watched a lot of Jets tape, what I have gotten to see leads me to believe it's more about scheme. Smith has thrown 86 deep balls (15 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage) this year. 12 of them have come in the last four weeks. One of the great battles a coordinator faces is trying to teach his players his scheme versus trying to let them do what they do best. I think we've got some Rex Grossman-esque potential with Smith, and Marty Mornhinweg doesn't want to let it come out.
As for the long-term, I think giving up on quarterbacks is easier than ever now that they make so much less money than they used to as high picks, and Smith is a second-rounder. I think the Jets should be aggressive about quarterback in the offseason if they're keeping Mornhinweg and not trying to change the offense, because it's not clear that Smith is going to do what Mornhinweg's offense demands him to do.
Rivers McCown: Welcome to the Native American Sensibilities Bowl! Can they move this game to Oklahoma?
So let's have this discussion, since we talked about Washington going forward last week. Did Alex Smith's performance against the Broncos sway you at all about what his talent level is? He did get killed by drops. And it's not his fault Andy Reid calls an ultra-conservative game.
Andrew Potter: I don't think it told us anything we didn't know. He's a capable but risk-averse quarterback in a risk-averse system, with a remarkably -- and unexpectedly, at least to me -- terrible receiving corps. I don't know whether it's surprise at the distance the ball's coming from or what, but it seems like even the most perfect Smith intermediate-to-deep pass is more likely to result in a drop than a completion. I first noticed that in the Buffalo game, but it seems like it's been an issue all season. A risk-averse quarterback in a risk-averse system with receivers who consistently drop easy catches is never going to make anybody involved look good, and even the recent points outburst has come against the 21st and 32nd-ranked pass defenses by DVOA.
The Chiefs pass defense has now been worse than 49% three out of the past five games. Sure, they had injuries for two of those three, but overall that's a worry.
Rivers McCown: Playing the two best offenses in DVOA. I'm not worried about them long-term. Yeah, Marcus Cooper probably was playing over his head, but they also played the third game without Justin Houston. I mean, it's a problem for them from the standpoint of "if this team a legitimate contender?" but I think the consensus on whether they are or not is pretty clear at this point.
The thing about Smith -- and the reason I think he gets so much love from the media -- is that everyone remembers the divisional round against New Orleans where he went up and took down Drew Brees. The 49ers were at home, but the Saints seemed to be the majority pick. Now we've got this game too. Does the act of being capable of winning a big game with your deep ball elevate you over the mid-tier quarterbacks that can't? How much is it actually worth to be able to ... what to call this ... go Flacco on a team?
Andrew Potter: I wasn’t aware that Smith got love from the media. What I’ve seen is basically “QB wins y’all" on one channel and discussion of his limitations on the other. To your question, I’d ask how many mid-tier starting quarterbacks can’t win the occasional game for you. The problem for the mid-tier guys is doing so consistently, is it not? The difference between consistent excellence with the occasional mediocre performance versus consistent mediocrity with occasional excellence. Smith’s generally in that latter bracket of guys who don’t lose you games but also won’t necessarily win them for you.
Rivers McCown: I think he draws in a lot of the non-statty types who don't believe in that sort of thing. Not just because of the wins, but also because of his success in the playoffs and the fact that he is capable of having a big game, even if there's not exactly a high-percentage chance. That's what I'm saying: there's a big difference between a quarterback like Joe Flacco or Alex Smith who can occasionally rise up and win a game with his arm strength on a few big plays and one that can't. But what exactly is that worth? It's certainly not better than having a quarterback that is undoubtedly good. How much better off are you with a quarterback like Smith if you're plotting a David strategy against a top team rather than, say, Chad Pennington?
Andrew Potter: Doesn't his success in the playoffs basically come down to one game against a bad defense though? The Saints pass defense was 30th in the league that year. Now we have the past two weeks against a Chargers defense which is one of the worst in the past 25 years and a Broncos pass defense which is both below average and beaten up.
It sounds like I'm dismissing Smith's success, which isn't my intent. He's a good quarterback. I don't think his big games in the last two weeks have redefined expectations, however, and even if he torches Washington to make it three big weeks in a row I would still be genuinely surprised to see Smith go Flacco in the playoffs. He has a great opportunity this week to continue his recent impressive numbers, but if the Chiefs need a big game from Smith to beat a bad Redskins team that would worry me more than Smith going 13-of 18 for 100 yards in a 13-3 win.
Andrew Potter: Despite their records and relative playoff prospects, these teams are less than 5% apart by DVOA and only three places apart in the ordinal DVOA rankings. What's more, DVOA has the -20.7% Baltimore offense as the worst unit in this game, and it's not particularly close. I know Baltimore's run game has been dire this year -- 32nd by DVOA -- whereas the Vikings have Adrian Peterson, but is Baltimore's overall offense really worse than Minnesota's?
Rivers McCown: Not by talent, no, but Minnesota also doesn't have their entire offensive line holding them hostage.
The funny thing is that the Ravens have actually not changed much. They have zero weeks with a positive offensive DVOA since their bye. Even the game where Ray Rice ran wild against the Bears was below-average. They only have one positive week on the season; against the Dolphins in Week 5, they had a 3.1% offensive DVOA. Luckily, what the Ravens lack in offense, they have in defense. The Vikings cannot say the same.
Andrew Potter: The Ravens are one of five teams without a winning record despite a top-ten defense. (The complete list is Baltimore, Buffalo, NY Giants, NY Jets, and Tampa Bay.) Are we seeing more evidence that good defense doesn't necessarily correlate to a lot of wins the way good offense does, or are we just seeing five teams whose excellence on defense is insufficient to overcome inadequate offense? (Tampa Bay has the best offense of the five, ranking 22nd with a -6.6% DVOA.)
Rivers McCown: I would guess the latter. I mean, it's obvious that offense is more important. But that alone wouldn't be enough to submarine all these teams. All of them have rookie quarterbacks or pathetic offensive lines.
The funny thing is that despite all the handwringing about the Vikings' defensive decline, they actually haven't dropped much. They were 24th against the pass in 2012, and they're 28th against the pass now. Antoine Winfield has left, and I think Jared Allen has obviously declined, but the run defense stagnation (seventh to 19th) has been the driving force between them going from a mediocre defense to a bad one.
Andrew Potter: Ah, run the ball and stop the run. Miss on the former and you get the 2013 Ravens. Miss on the latter and you get the 2013 Vikings.
Rivers McCown: Pep Hamilton hates both of these teams.
Rivers McCown: Speaking of games that would have looked nice earlier in the season. Throw this on in Week 2 and it's a must-watch game between two championship contenders with excellent quarterbacks; throw this on now and it's Matt Ryan minus his best receiver versus a completely broken offense. Oh, right, and the Packers defense has been utterly awful, with zero sign of improvement. They haven't had a negative defensive DVOA since Week 7. Part of that is about missed time for important players like Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, and Casey Hayward. But part of it may just be that they're not that good.
Andrew Potter: Ditto for Atlanta, which has the second-worst defense by DVOA, second-worst against the pass and sixth-worst against the run. Despite this and their offensive injuries, the Falcons are still barely worse than Green Bay by our numbers and the betting line as I'm writing this is +0. It seems inconceivable for a 3-9 team traveling to Lambeau, but should Atlanta be considered favorites for this game given Green Bay's quarterback situation?
Rivers McCown: The difference is that nobody expected the Falcons to have a good defense. The Packers had our eighth-ranked defense in 2012 -- this year it's 30th. I know they weren't very good in 2012, but they had some promising young pieces.
I would absolutely consider the Falcons favorites for this game. Ryan and (now healthy) Roddy White are the two best players either team has on the field, are they not? I suppose you could argue Jordy Nelson over White, but the fact remains that he has nobody to throw him the ball. I'll take the team that can pass over the team that can run -- and it's really weird to say that about the Packers, but it's true.
Andrew Potter: I’d argue Jordy Nelson over White. I’d also argue Tony Gonzalez over White. I agree with the general point though: Atlanta has a pass offense, whereas Green Bay does not. Green Bay’s three worst rushing performances of the year have also come in the four weeks since Aaron Rodgers went down. Neither team has a good defense, but Atlanta does at least have a functional offense.
Rivers McCown: And functional is all you need the way this defense is playing. I actually am starting to wonder if Dom Capers might need to be fired. I would love to see someone do a study on zone blitz effectiveness over the past few years, because the Lebeau Steelers and Capers Packers are both faltering, and while I feel like there are reasons for that beyond the zone blitz, it might be something that has outlived its distinct schematic advantage.
Andrew Potter: It's odd, looking at the relative DVOA matchups, but this doesn't have the feel of a defensive battle to me despite what the numbers suggest. Maybe it's that neither is really good enough to be in the playoff hunt and neither is really bad enough to be in the running for the first pick, so both teams sort of fall by the wayside. Both do have good defenses though, and rookie quarterbacks going up against those defenses.
Rivers McCown: So we've learned that the Bucs aren't in the class of the Panthers, but they were in the class of the Seahawks? Zuh? I think this may go back to what Matt Waldman wrote about Mike Glennon getting to play with a lot of clean pockets this year, and Carolina's ability to eliminate those with their stout defensive line.
For EJ Manuel, I'm not even sure what to think right now. Part of it is that I don't have a lot of Buffalo games on the film-watching schedule, of course, but he seems more up-and-down than any non-Geno Smith rookie in the league from afar.
Andrew Potter: Manuel played well against New England in Week 1, against Carolina in Week 2, and against the Jets in Week 11. Those games aside, Buffalo's only positive DVOA passing performance was against Cincinnati with Thaddeus Lewis under center. Manuel's passing DVOA is -9.8%, good for 30th in the league. The Bills have had a tough schedule of pass defense, but I wonder how much his perception is still living off that very good first impression.
Rivers McCown: I blame the lack of punctuation in "EJ," personally. No periods means we have to select our own endpoints.
The Bills are 27th in variance -- so while they may not go Full Jets on us, they're pretty up-and-down as a team. That fits my mental diagram of this game, which would not be surprised by a 20-point Bills victory or loss.
Andrew Potter: Which is the Buffalo Bills in a nutshell.
Rivers McCown: The Revenge of Mike Wallace, coming live to a CBS station near you. Somehow his attitude problems have been lost in the shuffle in Miami this year. Wonder what could have caused that...
Wallace is 66th out of 86 qualified receivers in DVOA this year. He has 6 DYAR. Six. And the offense hasn't exactly morphed into a juggernaut on his watch either -- though some of that is admittedly because the offensive line is in shambles. I think it's clear that Pittsburgh was smart to let him walk.
Andrew Potter: Given that his replacement as the number one receiver, Antonio Brown, is currently second in DYAR, and Jerricho Cotchery is tenth, I'd say that's a safe conclusion. Wallace might still get his revenge, however, as Miami quietly has a good pass defense (-7.4%, seventh) and Pittsburgh's running game was woeful (-16.9%, 29th) even before they lost another starting center to injured reserve.
Rivers McCown: Cotchery has definitely been an interesting dig by Todd Haley. I thought he was totally washed up. In his last season with more than 31 targets, he had a -22.8% DVOA. Granted, Mark Sanchez was involved there. Now a lot of that value comes from the eight touchdowns, but you don't often find slot-types hovering at the top of the DVOA ratings if they don't actually compete on deep balls, and a lot of his targets have been on short balls. 46 of his 57 targets have come within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Andrew Potter: Second receivers are the weakness of the Dolphins secondary too, if DVOA is any indication. That’s more likely to be exploited than Miami’s weakness against running backs, though Heath Miller has re-emerged recently to attack that 28th-ranked 19.2% DVOA against tight ends.
Miami’s offense goes against a Steelers defense which ranks 23rd at 5.4% DVOA -- a surprisingly low ranking and rating for a team which usually has one of the top defenses in the league. The Steelers have never had a bottom-half DVOA defense in the history of DVOA, but this defense has been declining every year since 2010. Miami’s offense isn’t good, but it’s middle-of-the-pack not good rather than below-average not good, and its problem is the offensive line while the Steelers have no pass rush. These teams are very similar by DVOA, the Dolphins have the better record, and the line is Miami +3. Total pick-em then?
Rivers McCown: I'd lean towards the Steelers, though I'm not actually comfortable placing money on it or anything. I think Miami's offensive line is slightly more of a disaster than Pittsburgh's pass rush. Which is what we in Texas would call a "prettiest girl in Oklahoma" distinction.
Andrew Potter: Detroit has tried, and so far failed, to squander their chances of winning the NFC North. The Eagles, meanwhile, are now in the DVOA top ten and hot on the heels of Dallas at the top of the NFC East. It's been overshadowed by two huge divisional NFC games, but this stands out to me as the pick of the 1pm kickoffs: Chip Kelly's Eagles trying outgun Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson.
Rivers McCown: Detroit may have tried and failed, but I'd say that's more about the teams in their division running out of steam to catch them with. I hate to use the "you and I could do better" routine, because that demeans the players a bit too much, but let's say ... Justin Forsett and DeShaun Foster could run for 200 yards against the Bears if they were made to run as a three-legged creature. The Packers are doing as much to bolster Aaron Rodgers' MVP case in 2014 as is humanly possible. And, well, the Lions used up most of their poor luck in 2012, so this only makes sense in a weird cosmic way.
Andrew Potter: If Detroit does take the division, it will probably be in the Colts “this says more about the division than about its winner" way, but I still wouldn't be surprised to see them make a game of it here. In fact, no result would surprise me here: Eagles blowout win, Lions blowout win, or close game either way. The 53.5 over/under would have me taking the over, as both teams scoring 27+ has already happened 32 times this season and this is Week 14's most likely candidate, but then I thought the same before the Eagles played the Cowboys in Week 7 and look how that turned out.
Rivers McCown: Oh I think the Eagles should be favored here, but (plays The Solid Verbal shootout sound).
Outside of last week's Thanksgiving Adventure Time with Matt Flynn, the Lions have really shown little reason to believe in their secondary. The Eagles have been better in the second half -- 15th in defensive DVOA since Week 9 -- but they don't have the horses to stop Calvin Johnson. I could easily see this being a game where the last team with the ball has the best chance to win. And in that case I think you have to juxtapose Jim Schwartz against Chip Kelly, and as aggressive as Schwartz has been this year, I think you and I both know who is more likely to take the bold path in this one.
Andrew Potter: Jim Schwartz’s team is aggressive, but not necessarily in a way that wins you games. Which is to say that the Lions are the more likely team to go all D.J. Swearinger and give away a stupid penalty at a really dumb moment, Ndamukong Suh quarterback cuddles aside. It’s clear that the Eagles should be favorites: they’re better by DVOA, and they’re at home (though by DVOA their offense has so far been worse at home, and the Lions offense has so far been better on the road). I’m simply saying that I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if Calvin Johnson goes nuts and scores four touchdowns on jump balls while quadruple covered, while Nick Foles remembers that he’s meant to be portraying Nick Foles. Either way, I expect this game to be entertaining.
Rivers McCown: I just want to point out that D.J. Swearinger's Twitter handle is JungleBoi_Swagg. I think that's something that needs more national attention.
The winner of this game is in the driver's seat for the No. 3 seed, which likely means the 49ers. The loser is looking at the NFC South runner-up. Any real preference on playing one of those teams if you're the Lions or Eagles?
Andrew Potter: I would fancy my chances against this season's 49ers a lot more than I would fancy my chances against the Saints offense or the Panthers defense. That seems like pretty good motivation, if the idea of an actual honest-to-goodness home playoff game isn't sufficient.
Rivers McCown: Without seeing statements from the new ownership group it's sort of hard to read the tea leaves here, but it's pretty clear that Mike Munchak needs to be out as an NFL head coach, right? This is a team that aspires to run the football and be mentally tough, and it can't do either of those things without playing a bad team.
Manning Winter Hysteria (Seasonal Affective Manning Hysteria?) aside, the Broncos are pretty much the best team in football. Tennessee isn't in position to take advantage of the defensive injuries to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Champ Bailey without changing a lot of how their offense actually runs.
Andrew Potter: Like who's quarterbacking it and who he's throwing to? Running one's offense through Ryan Fitzpatrick seems like a recipe for exactly what happened last week, and that Colts team is nowhere near as good as the Broncos.
I don't have an opinion on Munchak, but given the stated preference of his division leader's head coach, and given that all of the division is bad, those aspirations aren't exactly out of place in the AFC South.
Rivers McCown: Well it's always easy to take shots at the AFC South, but yeah, the only coach in the division that seems to have any forward momentum at this point is Gus Bradley. Both Chuck Pagano and Munchak are stuck in the 1990's.
See, I think when you have quarterbacks like Jake Locker and Fitzpatrick -- players who run well and can make some plays downfield -- you have to set up your offense to run with more of a streetball flow. Stop trying to control the game, run the hurry-up, and make play-action a focal point of your game plan. The Titans don't do that because ... uh, because it's more fun watching Locker throw curls to Nate Washington? The Titans don't have a lot of consistency on offense, but with Justin Hunter, Kendall Wright, and even Chris Johnson ... they should be aiming to take as many as shot plays as possible. Instead they emphasize doing more of what they're worst at in the hope that they'll improve at it.
Andrew Potter: The Broncos, meanwhile, are one week closer to earning Peyton Manning the rest his sprained ankles crave. The defense was the strength of the Titans earlier in the year, but it has regressed over the past few weeks. Each defense has an obvious weakness, but I’m not sure it will make much difference how Denver chooses to attack Tennessee: their offense is better than the Titans defense in both phases. Denver’s defense had its first game below 0.0% since Week 6 last time out, but not in a way that makes me think the Titans can make a shootout of this. I have to agree with the oddsmakers on this one: Denver by two touchdowns is entirely believable.
Andrew Potter: It was good of the NFL to put this game up against the other NFC West divisional clash. Technically, the Cardinals can still overtake the 49ers for second place in this division and a wild card playoff spot, or they could be swept by the Rams and potentially finish bottom of the division. Neither result would really surprise me, though the latter probably requires a little more Kellen Clemens success than I'm comfortable expecting.
Rivers McCown: Do you think Kevin Demoff and Les Snead even talk about games at this point, or do they just high-five each other for the Robert Griffin trade?
The Rams have a really interesting roster because that trade has given them so much young talent to churn through and work with. The wide receiver corps is stacked with high picks. Jared Cook continues to be Jared Cook, which means every six games or so you remember he's on the team. The secondary is where improvements can still be made, but I don't think they're coming this season.
Andrew Potter: If they were, we'd have seen signs of it before now. If Sam Bradford is healthy next year, Cook's is the one 'skill' position on offense where I feel like the Rams need a different player rather than simply development from the existing one, but their offensive line is still far from ideal.
The Cardinals, of course, have had similar difficulties on the offensive line, and the Rams are perfectly placed to take advantage of that. It may not be a fun day to be Carson Palmer, but both of these teams will probably be looking for their defense to earn them the win anyway.
Rivers McCown: Here's what I don't get about Cook: is it laziness with the routes? If you go out and pay him to be a gamebreaking tight end, why are you not at least trying to make him function as one? I don't feel like he's as good as they thought he was, but I also don't feel like he's actually a focal point of the St. Louis offense. I'm not saying he has to have 100 targets or something, but I do feel like he's not utilized correctly on a consistent basis.
Andrew Potter: To be utilized consistently, you have to be a consistent player. I’ve never had the impression that Cook is consistent, and I definitely don’t think he’s as good as they thought he was. Granted, his DVOA is positive and he is 15th by DYAR, so my impressions could easily be completely wrong. Arizona’s biggest weakness on pass defense is against tight ends, where they allow 84 yards per game at 6.1% DVOA, so this is one of those games where Cook might get the opportunity to prove he can be that game-breaking player.
We talked last week about Larry Fitzgerald. The Rams are terrible against number one receivers: 85 yards per game on 7.4 catches at 28.1% DVOA. They’ve just given up a big game to Anquan Boldin for the second time this year. It’s just as true here as it was against San Francisco: if this pass rush doesn’t dominate the line of scrimmage, the secondary is in real trouble.
Rivers McCown: Also, if you're Cook, why go to a team coached by the same guy who failed to utilize you correctly when (apparently) lots of money was out there for you in any number of other locales? Sorry, I'll stop. I just think he's a fascinating player.
The pass rush can absolutely dominate Bradley Sowell and company in this game. I think the Rams mix in well with the Cardinals weaknesses. And hey, Cook could have another big game against the defense that allows the most yards per game to tight ends. Unfortunately, Clemens is not the quarterback you want delivering a deep strike to Cook.
Andrew Potter: Clemens is not the quarterback you want delivering a deep strike to anybody.
Rivers McCown: Hard to ask for a better game than this one, though we might get one on Sunday night anyway. The 49ers have been "sneaky" good in passing DVOA. By that I mean I feel like I've heard all season that Colin Kaepernick is slow and the receivers are bad ... yet they have the fifth-best passing offense in the league. How does that work? Are people just mad because they haven't been otherworldly and Kaepernick should make things so easy in theory?
Andrew Potter: Their big games on the scoreboard are almost all against bad teams, or teams which are generally perceived as bad: St. Louis, Houston, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Washington. Their one big win over an expected contender was in Week 1, and even Green Bay doesn't have a good defense. That leaves the home game against Arizona, which is the one time they've put up a lot of points against a defense which is recognized as good. It's also, I think, considered easy to stop their passing game: shut down Vernon Davis, and the job is done. Michael Crabtree's return should help with that perception, but not as much as a good performance against the Seahawks would.
Rivers McCown: Right, and Arizona isn't conventionally seen as a great defense yet because they have no real buzz. I suppose I can see that. I still think it's getting a bit too much play. The 49ers defense was the problem, but then Aldon Smith came back and they've had four straight games with a negative defensive DVOA. I think they're coming on at the right time. Now, does that mean they can beat Seattle on the road in the playoffs? Maybe not. But in this game? I think they've got a decent shot.
Andrew Potter: After last week’s beatdown of the Saints this game is no longer as objectively important to the Seahawks as it is to the 49ers. Seattle can go 2-2 from now until the end of the season and still clinch the division and home field advantage. Looking at the schedule, even a loss here probably means a 3-1 finish unless they rest starters. Conversely, San Francisco is only one game ahead of Arizona, with a trip to the desert in Week 17. They have an incentive to not only beat the Seahawks, but also ensure that Seattle’s Week 16 home game against Arizona is meaningful to them. San Francisco can shut down Seattle’s offense, albeit not quite as effectively as Seattle can shut down San Francisco’s. If Seattle is to lose another meaningful game before the Super Bowl, this looks the most likely candidate.
Rivers McCown: This game will really amplify how important the secondary receivers are for San Francisco. Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham need to be able to exploit Seattle's non-Richard Sherman cornerbacks for the passing game to run smoothly. If Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane keep producing at a level equal or better than Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner, I might actually start considering conspiracy theories.
Andrew Potter: I'm sure I read some kind of controversial thing about the quarterbacks in this game, but I can't quite remember what it was …
Rivers McCown: I think they were traded for each other or something? Did that happen?
It's kind of strange to look back at reactions to that trade over the years. Shawne Merriman's career has waxed and waned already. It's hilarious that Nate Kaeding was a third-round pick, in retrospect. Super Bowls or not, I feel like San Diego probably got the better of the trade, but there wasn't a real loser.
Andrew Potter: San Diego got the better quarterback and the extra picks, but the Giants won two championships. I expect, given hindsight, both would make the trade again.
On to the game, then. Philip Rivers has the Chargers offense still keeping the team competitive: they still haven't had a single-game passing DVOA below 16.4% despite only ten points against Cincinnati. The defense was better against Cincinnati, but better is relative: they still have only had one game better than 0.0% DVOA all year, against Indianapolis in Week 6. Looking at the burnt out shell that is the Giants offense, this should be a second -- but so should Oakland, and Jacksonville, and Miami …
Rivers McCown: I wonder how far up the list of most extreme teams ever the Chargers will be in when we run that list at the end of the year. Because I do think Eli Manning will be doing some belated carving in this game, as every team that has played the Chargers this year has.
Andrew Potter: As long as it’s belated carving up against their prevent defense, the Chargers would take that. They aren’t technically out of the playoff hunt yet, so the game is potentially important to them -- though even if they win here, they’ll need an awful lot of things to go right to get in.
Of course, technically the Giants aren’t out of the playoff hunt yet either. Mercifully, wins for the Eagles and Cowboys this weekend might finally eliminate them before they have a chance to go nuts in January again.
Rivers McCown: The Chargers don't have a non-prevent defense.
Andrew Potter: You make a valid point.
Rivers McCown: Wow, what's this, an actual Sunday night game of importance?
Andrew Potter: For once, this is absolutely the right game to have on Sunday night. Third against fourth by DVOA, with identical records, at the home of the slightly lower-rated team, competing directly for a division title. Carolina's excellent defense and above-average offense against New Orleans' excellent offense and above-average defense. Fourth-And-One Ron Rivera against Surprise-Onside-In-The-Superbowl Sean Payton. Definitely no early night this Sunday.
Rivers McCown: I agree with him on the term Riverboat not fitting his style; riverboat gamblers don't really call to mind calculated risk. Of course, "analytical" Rivera fails without any alliteration. Reason Rivera? Rivera of Reason? Inanimate Carbon Rivera? Oh sorry, I got last year's meme mixed up in this year's.
I think this game is won in the middle of the field. The Panthers defensive tackles versus the Saints interior line. If Ben Grubbs, Jahri Evans, and Brian De La Puente can hold back Star Lotulelei and give Drew Brees a pocket to move up to, the Saints passing game can pick apart the Carolina defensive backs. If they can't, and Brees is throwing off his back foot all game, this could look very much like the Seattle game.
Andrew Potter: It’s not only alliteration; it’s the wordplay of Riverboat Rivera. You also probably think, with Rivera, that fourth-and-short is much less of a risk than the public perceives it to be. That’s the beauty of not relying on Fox and CBS for your analysis.
I’d be very surprised if this ended up like the Seattle game for New Orleans, pressure or no. The Seahawks defensive backs are far superior to Carolina’s, and this game is in New Orleans rather than Seattle. Even with pressure on Monday, Brees was often throwing good passes which required strong secondary play to break up. Carolina will probably be more reliant on their offense than Seattle was on theirs, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The more I look at the matchups, the more excited I am for the game -- even if the potential headache of a Saints supporting wife adds an element of trepidation.
Rivers McCown: I'd say she's supporting the wrong Saints. Go Southampton!
I, too, believe we'll see a different New Orleans tonight. But I wanted to throw the option out there, because Carolina's defensive front has been that good. It would be my opinion that with the lack of a "star" pass coverage player, they'd especially struggle with matchup nightmares like Jimmy Graham. Let's see how my silly narrative drivel pans out!
6 comments, Last at 09 Dec 2013, 6:36pm by justanothersteve