Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
13 Oct 2006
compiled by Aaron Schatz
This week, we give Mike Tanier a well-deserved week off and turn Too Deep Zone over to our game charters. As most of you know, this is the second year of our project where a group of volunteers (and FO staffers as well) charts every game of the season to track things that the play-by-play does not track, and create new statistics. Occasionally you'll see these stats during the season -- for example, in Any Given Sunday this week -- but the turnaround time is slow, so our database is usually behind the actual games by a couple weeks.
But we don't need the database to learn something from the game charting project, because all that tape-watching turns us into scouts as much as statisticians. We asked a few of our game charters to share their thoughts on the games and teams they've charted so far this season. The comments below represent their opinions, not mine or those of anyone else at FO. They reflect the teams these charters track, so all 32 teams are not represented. But if you want to know not just which teams are winning, but why, the insights are quite interesting.
Unrelated note: I've received numerous e-mails about the offensive line and defensive line pages. The macro that producers the HTML is broken and I haven't had time to update them manually this week, but I will try to do so later today. Thanks for understanding.
Late note: Sorry about the mistake that caused me to lose the comments of some charters. Three more charters have been added below.
The Houston offense, in the game I charted against the Dolphins, uses quite a lot of I-formation, three-receiver sets. They usually pass from this set, which set up some good runs later in the game.
Miami has a lot of problems with run blocking, mostly on the right side of the line. Pass blocking is actually quite average, though Culpepper does tend to exacerbate any deficiencies. Harrington pretty much hid them, though I'd say they line did give him about the same time as they gave Culpepper. Run blocking, though ... as I said, there are issues. Right guard is a huge problem right now, but it's not the only one; Jeno James has been faltering far more than he did last year. On the other hand, L.J. Shelton is a poor pass blocker at the left tackle position, but run blocks pretty well.
Culpepper's accuracy dooms him. Against the Titans, they showed differences between his release in Minnesota pre-injury and now, and that might be the reason, but it's just appalling. In his second and third games, he was awful, constantly hitting the receivers' feet, rather than their hands. He improved somewhat in the Texans game, but then he got benched.
Ronnie Brown is, contrary to popular opinion, a beast. Miami fans complain that he hesitates and dances around way too much, instead of hitting the hole quickly, but it's not like the line is giving him that option. I can honestly say 60 percent of the yards he's gotten so far belong to him, and solely to him. He will be a very effective back, once he has, you know, a line...
One thing I've noticed from doing 1.5 Green Bay games is a strange formation where the Packers take a standard 3-WR 1-RB 1-TE shotgun set, but instead of having the tight end on the line, they line him up as an H-back/fullback, usually directly in front of the running back.
What does this say to me? Even with one of the quickest releases in the game at quarterback, out of the shotgun, with a running back in the backfield to block, they still need another person in the backfield to block, and he has to be in the pocket, because he won't be able to help out on the outside or lined up next to the quarterback.
The Bills' left side -- tackle Mike Gandy and guard Tutan Reyes -- does a very good job in the running game.
While the secondary has underachieved so far, Giants strong safety Gibril Wilson has been active and very good against the run.
He's still a play maker and is excellent in pursuit but Jets LB Jonathan Vilma is jumping around blocks at times and has been getting pounded when the Jets play 3-4.
The Titans have three running backs who could start in Chris Brown, Travis Henry, and LenDale White. The problem is that none of them deserves to. I'd expect to see more of White as the season progresses, simply because there's a not unreasonable expectation he might get better, while Brown and Henry are known, mediocre qualities.
Michael Roos moved from right tackle to left tackle for the Titans this year, and has quietly been pretty effective. With starting guard Zach Piller out, Jacob Bell moved to guard from right tackle and second-year man David Stewart replaced him. Having a starter get hurt isn't supposed to improve two positions, but Bell's a better guard than tackle. The other guard, Benji Olson, has been pretty mediocre this year.
Albert Haynesworth's 5-game suspension is well-deserved, but the Titans run defense will really miss him. He's by far their best run-stuffing lineman, even if he seems to take plays off. Kyle Vanden Bosch is a high-motor guy at defensive end and a good player, but can be overpowered at the point of attack. The rest of the line has been underwhelming, and the next time Travis LaBoy keeps contain could be the first. Last year in Brad Kassell, the Titans had an middle linebacker who was pretty bad defending the pass but was a stout run defender. In converted OLB Peter Sirmon, the Titans have an middle linebacker who's a mediocre pass defender and a mediocre run stopper. David Thornton was a big free agent acquisition, but he's been just another guy rather than an immediate impact player. Ketih Bulluck is still really good, but he's also inconsistent. He seems disheartened by some of the players around him and tries to take on too much. I still think he's the heir to Derrick Brooks as the NFL's best weakside linebacker, but he needs a pick-me-up or he'll end up in the Hall of the Very Good instead of the Hall of Fame.
I think Pac-Man Jones would love to play against T.O. every week. He's better against the physical receivers than he is against burners. He's still learning, like when Terry Glenn faked him out and beat him for a touchdown in Week 4, but he's already very good. And Pac-Man looks even better when you compare him to Reynaldo Hill on the other side. I don't think Hill's made a single good play in the passing game yet this year. Thankfully, he has Lamont Thompson to keep him company in the Land of the Secondary Toast. Frankly, unless the Titans can learn how to hide Hill and Thompson, they might not ever stop anybody. Chris Hope has been the Titans' best free agent acquisition. He sometimes takes a bad angle in run support, but he looks like he belongs on the same field as Pac-Man and not Hill and Thompson.
On the plays I've charted, I've counted six dropped balls by Steelers receivers: three by Nate Washington, two by Santonio Holmes, and one by Cedric Wilson. The alarming thing about six drops? Three of them came on third downs. A fourth one came in the end zone late in the Cincinnati game on a drive where the Steelers had to end up settling for a field goal. Ben Roethlisberger has been rough, but his receivers aren't helping him. In defense of Holmes though, one of those "drops" came on a play where Keiwan Ratliff took his legs out from under him basically flipped him over heels over head. It was vicious.
Hines Ward looks like he's on the decline something fierce. It looks like he lost the half step he couldn't afford to lose and it's killing him. Some might say it's the hamstring, but I say the hamstring's been lingering for over a year now. Personally, I think his reckless play over the years (which is what made him the great player he was) is starting to catch up with him, combined with the fact he's now 30 years old.
The best defensive back I've seen is Jacksonville's Rashean Mathis. I charted one half of Jacksonville-Pittsburgh, and the four passes the Steelers threw at him went: broken up, broken up, intercepted, intercepted. Cincinnati's Jonathan Joseph was no slouch in his game either. I counted seven passes where he was the closest defender, and only three of them were completed.
Even though Santonio Holmes hasn't played a large role in the Steelers passing game yet, he has made two rather heads-up plays on punt returns. Twice this year I've seen him signal for a fair catch inside his own 10-yard line, and then absolutely light up opposing teams' gunners as they attempted to down the ball. He did it once in Jacksonville and once against Cincinnati. These aren't really earth shattering plays in the grand scheme of things, but both saved the Steelers 17-19 yards of field position. Hey, it's a start for the kid.
All that talk about the Steelers run defense suffering because of the loss of Kimo von Oelhoffen? Balderdash. Brett Kiesel has been superb. He's about 10 pounds lighter, a lot faster, and seems to be just as strong. He's a man, an animal, and a manimal all rolled into one.
Bills quarterback J.P. Losman has shown marked improvement in his second year as a starter. Through the first quarter of the season, he has displayed Kelly Holcomb-like accuracy, but unlike Holcomb, he's been completing the ball down the field. Draft day comparisons to Brett Favre may turn out to have some accuracy. They way he's been zipping the ball through porthole-sized windows in double coverage certainly looks a bit like the Green Bay gambler. Coaches usually provide young quarterbacks with more protection, but Losman seems to thrive when he has more options out running routes. His performance by just about any measure (yards per play, quarterback rating, completion rate) is better with three and four wide receivers than with multiple tight ends and fullbacks staying in to block. Part of that could be due to Losman's scrambling ability making extra blockers less important than a more stationary target. After being sacked for a safety in Week 1, he matter-of-factly explained that he ducked the first two guys but just didn't see the third. Another reason could be that Buffalo's tight end depth (Kevin Everett, Ryan Neufeld) isn't as strong as their third and fourth receivers (Josh Reed, Roscoe Parrish).
Chicago is in the strange position of having the receivers (they of the dropped passes last year) make the quarterback look good. Grossman reminds me of Manning the Younger last year; he's simply been getting lucky with interceptions. In the first half of the Minnesota game, there were two interceptions outright dropped, one that was a toss-up, and another that actually was caught, but called back for a mostly unrelated defensive pass interference.
However, the similarity between Manning and Grossman ends there. While Manning is getting lucky on deep routes, Grossman's completion percentage on long passes will probably stay the same; he has some skill keeping the ball right on the edge of the field, and will probably keep it from being intercepted too much. His real problems are with pressure and mid-range routes, especially to the sidelines. He's dangerously inaccurate (although he leads pretty well) over the middle, and he doesn't throw timing routes to the sides with enough velocity. Sometimes he'll telegraph his throws and give the safety (if playing close) a jump. Throws of this sort actually comprised all four of the would-be interceptions I mentioned above, and it's been a consistent problem. I would say he needs to work on his decision-making, but he seems to have the Favre mentality, and that doesn't seem to leave players as they progress.
The big reason for the Chicago offensive renaissance is Bernard Berrian downfield. Muhsin Muhammad continues to be overrated, but Berrian is fantastic. Part of this is that no team has done a decent job of covering him; I've seen bizzare things, from cornerbacks giving 10-15 (yes, 15) yard cushions to safeties not being assigned to roll to his side of the field for help up top. Why are these problems? While Muhammad has the "smoke" option in the offense, most other plays seem to involve a Berrian option: a five-yard hook for soft coverage, and a streak for close coverage. I included an image to show what I'm bad at explaining: most of the problems arise when they put Muhammad in the slot, either on Berrian's side or on the opposite side. While Muhammad does occasionally run streaks, he generally is at his best on a cross or flat accross the middle, so they use him in those routes (and consequently in the slot) very often.
Detroit tried to stuff Berrian at the line. This was a disaster, because while Dre' Bly could shut down Muhammad, Berrian got a lot of free space -- he was wide open all the time, the safety not noticing until too late. The Vikings gave way too much cushion, and the Bears either called or audibled to the hook option. The Vikings avoided the huge play, but they gave away far more then they had to. Interestingly, a good way to deal with this scheme is to run either a Cover 2 or a short zone/zone blitz: When the Lions weren't trying to stuff him, this is what they did. The only problem is their safety is terrible and let Berrian get behind him.
I think a real problem is that the Bears have simply played inexperienced/ bad defenses. The Vikings, hardly Pittsburgh, did a good defensive job even with some glaring coverage errors.
I've been seeing these things during the games and perhaps the constant talk about a guaranteed Super Bowl victory around the town has made me think a little bit much about precisely why I don't like the Bears nearly as much as the world seems to.
The Jets run defense is a disaster right now, and the biggest problem is the Bermuda Triangle operating between Kimo von Oelhoffen, Dewayne Robertson and Jonathan Vilma. Von Oelhoffen has a reputation for being a stout run defender, but he has been dreadful this year. Kimo routinely gets pushed off the line of scrimmage and frequently ends up on the ground. Even when he stays upright, he often overruns plays, allowing runners to cutback into the hole he has left. Robertson has made some good plays in the backfield, but he frequently is a step late in closing the hole. As for Vilma, he has been getting neutralized on a regular basis by blockers who get through to the second level. Vilma just doesn't have the size to fill the hole, and he hasn't been able to slip blocks in time to stop runners for acceptable gains.
What is most notable about the Jets run defense is that teams have been completely unashamed to telegraph their intention to run. New England had three tight ends on the field for over half of their offensive snaps, and Buffalo fielded an I-heavy set with two tight ends and a fullback for a similar percentage of offensive plays. Whenever the Jets stay in their base 3-4, teams have simply committed extra blockers to tying up the OLBs and have had their choice of isolations on the ILBs.
Vilma's struggles have extended to the passing game as well. He was the primary zone defender when Roscoe Parrish turned a 5-yard hot read into a 45-yard touchdown. He picked up a gratuitous pass interference while covering Willis McGahee in the flat when Buffalo was backed up in second-and-20 deep in their own end. The Patriots isolated Vilma out wide against Kevin Faulk on third-and-5 and ran a simple stop route; Vilma was so busy backpedaling that he gave up the marker to Faulk without a fight. That conversion allowed New England to run another three minutes off the clock at the end of the game. With Vilma struggling so much on the inside, it's surprising that the team hasn't tried using him more as a blitzer. Victor Hobson, however, seems to have locked up that role.
Running backs were a blocking problem on both sides in the Week 2 New England-New York Jets game. Laurence Maroney looked awful in blitz pickup when the Jets brought linebackers from the outside on both sides of the line in the fourth quarter. Maroney danced around in front of Tom Brady without picking up either of them, though Brady completed a six-yard pass on the play. Maroney is getting a lot of "real deal" pub in fantasy circles, but he'll have to protect the QB better if he wants to be a full time back.
Jets fullback B.J. Askew was a problem as well. He whiffed on two blocks that led directly to lost yardage. First, the Jets noticed how Jarvis Green kept beating D'Brickashaw Ferguson to the inside and moved Askew over to help -- but Askew whiffed on Green, who forced Chad Pennington into Vince Wilfork for a sack. The second situation was a running play to the left end where Askew dove at Roosevelt Colvin's legs instead of engaging him. Colvin jumped over Askew and disrupted the play, which ended up going for a three-yard loss.
The Eagles drop their defensive ends into coverage on a lot of their blitzes. Many of their zone blitz packages consist of overloading one side of the line with a linebacker and a safety, then dropping the end on the other side of the line into coverage. The man coverage exists on the side to the blitz because there are still four defenders in zone coverage on the other side. I noticed a few times that the blitzing safeties are coached to jump up and block the pass, so it's a tough pass even if the quarterback recognizes the scheme and checks down to the receiver in single coverage. One route I noticed that was effective against this blitzing scheme is to line up a tight end on the non-blitzing side, and have him run a crossing route with a QB rollout towards the blitzing side. This exposes MLB Jeremiah Trotter, who is responsible for that short zone since the safety and outside linebacker on that side are both blitzing. Running the same route to clear Trotter and then handing off on a draw play to the non-blitzing side also might have worked.
Safeties beware! For a converted quarterback, Michael Robinson has tremendous power at halfback. He took on Brian Dawkins at the goal line and literally ran him over, leaving Dawkins with a concussion and knocking him out for the game. Compare this run against Minnesota in 2005 with his TD run against the Eagles.
Chiefs' offensive coordinator Mike Solari needs to figure out how to mix things up in the running game. He's making the runs too predictable and isn't helping out Larry Johnson much. On the other hand, Solari's watered-down pass playbook with Damon Huard works better than his souped-up playbook with Trent Green. Keep the dumb routes alive, Mike!
As usual, Chiefs' defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham likes blitzing roughly every other down (as well as every single third down) and it's still causing the Chiefs to get burned by long gains. Let Tamba Hali and Jared Allen get to the quarterback and keep your decent second level and much improved third level back at home.
Everybody says the Chiefs' offensive line has really weakened since last year, losing Willie Roaf and John Welbourne, but I think the current line pass blocks very well, and the run blocking isn't too far behind. It's not the 2003 Chiefs, but it's good. The Chiefs don't miss fullback Tony Richardson ... until they get to the goal line.
The Bears' defensive line has excellent depth. In addition to recognized names like Tommie Harris, Adewale Ogunleye, and Tank Johnson, they've received solid contribution from DE Alex Brown, and 5th Rd draft pick DE Mark Anderson. Anderson has received the benefit of attention focused on containing Harris and Ogunleye, but to his credit he's making the plays.
Devin Hester has problems catching the ball on returns. This has not had a negative impact yet, but it just seems like it will at some point.
Injuries in the secondary and poor tackling are the culprits for the Colts' poor defensive showing. The defensive linemen are often out of position and reaching for tackles, the defensive backs often dive to knock down opponents rather than wrapping up for sure tackles. One bright spot has been the play of rookie safety Antoine Bethea, he is a playmaker in the mode of safety Bob Sanders (when Sanders is healthy and able to play, which is rare).
Terence Wilkins on returns is a significant upgrade on special teams. Adam Vinatieri looked good when he played, but his absence due to injuries somewhat justifies New England's decision.
Peyton Manning has improved in passing on the run to elude the pass rush, which has been a significant factor in converting critical third downs. But Marvin Harrison's ability to make catches has declined slightly. He drops balls more frequently, and he does not seem able to reel in the difficult catches that used to be the norm for him.
The unreported injury story of the early season is the decimation of Seattle's tight end chart. With Jerramy Stevens and Itula Mili both missing big chunks of playing time, the Seahawks are virtually a run-and-shoot team. Of the four halves I've charted, the Hawks have run about 150 plays and used no tight ends on about 70 snaps, almost half the time. They've actually used zero tight ends more than they've used one tight end. This includes the second half against the Giants, all of which Seattle spent trying to run out the clock. I think this is a big reason Shaun Alexander got off to a slow start. (Stevens returns this week.)
The question coming into the season was how Floyd Womack would fill in for Steve Hutchinson. The answer is "poorly." He allowed at least one sack or hurry in each of the three games he started (and remember, I only charted one half of each game). He fared better in run blocking; on runs to the left, in those three games, Seattle averaged 4.8 yards per carry, gaining four yards or more on 14 of 27 carries. With Womack injured, Chris Spencer started at left guard against Chicago. He allowed a sack, and on four carries to the left the team averaged just 3.0 yards per carry (not counting a 19-yard scramble by Matt Hasselbeck).
The Seahawks' safeties are playing great in pass coverage (passes with safeties as primary defenders are complete just 33.3 percent of the time, averaging 4.6 Yd/Att) and the linebackers are playing well (64.3 percent, 7.1 Yd/Att), but the cornerbacks are getting killed (76.1, 9.4). Among Seattle's top 3 cornerbacks, Kelly Herndon is playing best, and he's getting burned for 70.6 percent and 8.2 Yd/Att. These numbers are no doubt skewed by the second half of the Giants game, but the Bears burned them with the deep ball as well.
83 comments, Last at 17 Oct 2006, 2:43pm by Wanker79