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?
14 Dec 2006
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, 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. A few weeks ago, we ran a collection of observations from our game charters, and it's time to give them the floor once again. Remember that the comments below represent their opinions, not the opinions of any FO writers. They reflect the teams these charters track, so only a few teams are represented (we had less feedback this time).
I was assigned the second half of the Week 12 Baltimore-Pittsburgh game, but by the time I started charting, the game had become a one-sided affair. Baltimore scored 17 points and kept the Steelers off the board altogether. In watching the game, I saw a very good defense at work, both in terms of scheme as well as execution. I'm sure this is no surprise to anyone, but I don't know if people realize how overmatched Pittsburgh was that day.
I recorded 39 Pittsburgh pass plays in the second half. During most of those plays Roethlisberger was under enormous pressure, even though Steelers generally kept back players to assist in pass protection. Baltimore rushed only four 23 times in that second half, and 18 times Pittsburgh left additional players back in pass protection. With only four rushing, more defenders in coverage reduced Roethlisberger's options even further.
Baltimore also called blitzes at the perfect times. Here's the listing of the rushers and blockers for one drive at the end of the third quarter.
Note that the first pass play was fairly normal; keeping one extra blocker in is common. But on the second play, Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan called a corner blitz, bringing Gerome Sapp in from the edge. On that play, Sapp hurried Roethlisberger, but Ben managed to get the ball to Heath Miller regardless. On the third play, Baltimore brought six rushers, while Pittsburgh only had five blockers. This resulted in a sack and a loss of 10 yards. On the next two plays Pittsburgh, fearful of the pass rush, left in two extra blockers, while Baltimore chose not to blitz. This limited the passing options that Roethlisberger had available to him. Ryan blitzed when Pittsburgh least expected it, and he wanted to avoid blitzing when the offense kept in extra blockers. Of the 13 blitzes (either five or six rushers), only two ran up against seven or more blockers.
Another thing that Ryan is doing right is mixing up the defenders he sends on a blitz. Sapp (who is listed as a safety, but appeared to be a corner) and Corey Ivy both blitzed from the edge. I also saw a number of delayed blitzes that Pittsburgh seemed to have no answer for. Multiple times I would see Ray Lewis or some other blitzer hit Roethlisberger untouched, with no offensive player trying to block him.
To date myself a bit, J.P. Losman has a throwing motion like Sonny Jurgensen. It's a bit of shot put, but he seems to get it on the money. This guy is going to be good if Buffalo upgrades the offensive line.
Shawne Merriman threw around and ran around Buffalo's overmatched offensive tackles, Jason Peters and Terrance Pennington. Given the pass-rush talent in the AFC East -- Jason Taylor in Miami, Roosevelt Colvin and anybody else Belichick schemes in New England -- this has to change for Buffalo to become a force.
Phillip Rivers looked awfully average against a decent pass rush from Buffalo. San Diego may have a quick exit from the playoffs if a better overall team gets this kind of heat on him.
By now the Seahawks' postseason future seems etched in stone. Opening weekend, they will face one of the NFC's weakest playoff teams -- a flawed team like Carolina, Atlanta, or the Giants -- in Seattle, where they've lost just once in the past 18 games (counting playoffs). Buoyed by their home-field advantage, they should win once, but then they'll have to travel to Chicago or New Orleans, playing on the road against a much better team, and their season will most likely end there.
The defensive backfield, which was inconsistent during the Super Bowl run, has slipped to shoddy. Defenders are falling down, missing tackles, and allowing big plays. A switch at safety from Michael Boulware to Jordan Babineaux has done little to help. The front seven has been better, but has also suffered from a case of missed tackles. In the first half in San Francisco, I counted six missed tackles (five outright missed and one that was made, but surrendered eight yards in the process), accounting for an extra 79 yards of offense allowed.
On offense, the departure of Steve Hutchinson has been the most noticeable weak point of an offensive line that has been constantly reshuffled. As Mike Tanier noted in a recent Too Deep Zone, the Seahawks have not used any line combination more than four times. Left tackle Walter Jones has declined from arguably the league's best player to being merely a good tackle. Worse, fullback Mack Strong has apparently gotten very old overnight, going from a good player to a distinct liability.
The Seahawks' best chance to make a big playoff run is to spread the field with four wide receivers and count on Matt Hasselbeck to make quick, accurate throws. With Darrell Jackson, Bobby Engram (both of whom are of questionable health), Deion Branch, D.J. Hackett, and Nate Burleson, this team is ridiculously stacked at wide receiver and should have little problem finding a mismatch somewhere. This will also take pressure off the offensive line, and not ask them to hold their blocks for a long time. It will also keep the declining Strong and inconsistent tight end Jerramy Stevens on the bench.
On defense, it's not a problem with scheme. They simply need to tackle and cover better.
One of the main reasons for the Bengals' four-game winning streak has been the emergence of cornerback Johnathan Joseph. When Joseph was selected with the 24th pick of the 2006 draft, he seemed to be more a long-term solution to replace aging corner Tory James, who clearly lost a step over the course of 2005. Marvin Lewis was content to let Joseph learn behind veterans James and Deltha O'Neal as the nickel back before taking a starting spot in 2007.
When O'Neal injured his shoulder against the Chargers, Joseph was forced into the starting lineup and flourished. The Bengals have not lost since Joseph took over for O'Neal, and it now seems unlikely Joseph will lose his starting role, although it is unknown whether it is O'Neal or James that will see a diminished role. Joseph's main asset is his speed, which allows him to give receivers large cushions before the ball is thrown and still close in time to make a play.
No one is more aware of Jonathan's speed than Steve McNair. The Ravens passing attack was frustrated by Joseph all day, as he helped the Bengals force McNair to his worst game since Brian Billick took over play calling duties, as well as their only loss. McNair consistently threw outside routes to Joseph's side of the field, only to find his receiver covered by the time the ball arrived. Joseph had a career day: seven tackles and four passes defensed.
The major flaw in his game right now is an inability to catch the football. Three of the four passes Joseph batted down against the Ravens could have easily been interceptions. If he can turn those drops into interceptions, watch out: he will be great.
On offense, the story in Buffalo is the steady development of J.P. Losman. On defense the story is a player who has made a complete turnaround. Cornerback Nate Clements has gone from being a "don't let the door hit you" free-agent-to-be to an integral part of a big-play defense, likely earning himself millions of dollars in the process.
Clements has long been a gambler, leaving large cushions for receivers in the hopes of luring a quarterback into throwing his way. That means Clements is often charging at a receiver as the ball arrives, a strategy that relies on good open-field tackling. Clements suffered an early-season tackling slump, however, leading to some huge plays against him. In addition to the usual FO charting, I count missed tackles on Bills games. Clements missed 12 of 23 tackle opportunities in the first quarter of the season, a tackle accuracy rate of 48%. The misses led to an additional 83 yards gained by opposing receivers.
Clements has gradually improved his accuracy, missing just five tackles in the next seven games, and his tackle accuracy for the third quarter of the season was up to 86%.
It's possible that McGee's struggles to avoid the big play have led to Clements' rebirth. After opposing quarterbacks started targeting McGee's inability to defend a double move, the Bills shifted more safety help his way. Without a safety net, Clements is making better decisions about when to play tight and when to drop off.
38 comments, Last at 18 Dec 2006, 1:45pm by zlionsfan