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?
26 Oct 2007
compiled by Vince Verhei
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 third 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 this piece -- but the turnaround time is slow, so our database is usually behind the actual games by a couple weeks.
Then again, 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.
The question's been asked so many times it's a boring one by now: What's wrong with the Saints? My brother's theory is that I'm causing it by charting their games. Football fans will always be a superstitious lot, no matter how many statistics FO kicks out to explain the game. So in the interest of superstition, how about -- what's right with the Saints?
Marques Colston: Colston is still making great catches and laying blocks like Hines Ward. Outside of a bizarre one-catch, two-drop night on Sunday Night Football against Seattle, Colston has been one of the few bright spots on this offense. However, because the rest of the Saints receiver corps couldn't hang on to the football if it was stapled to them, he's getting all the attention from the secondary and has been largely unable to create much. The Saints have tried a few hitches in order to get Colston free; one went for a touchdown early on, but then in the strange Seattle game, Colston inexplicably dropped another.
Mike Karney: That couple you saw in Cleveland for last year's opener in matching Karney jerseys? True fans. Karney's biggest fan, though, seems to be Sean Payton. Karney's 26 touches in 2006 were more than the previous two years combined, and he's on pace for 32 this year. His three touchdowns last year (all in one game) should also be eclipsed without Deuce McAllister around.
They're not the Rams: I mean, it counts.
Fewer swing passes to Reggie Bush: Saints fans are dying for Reggie Bush to live up to the hype, but it looks like the coaching staff is starting to see that it's not going to happen. A very prominent feature of the Saints offense in 2006 was the swing pass to Reggie, ostensibly to get him in space so he could create. In reality, all it did was get Reggie started going sideways, his favorite direction. This season, that play has been mostly absent, and fans' blood pressure is lower as a result.
Pierre Thomas: Everyone likes an undrafted rookie, don't they? Thomas ran wild in the preseason and was a surprise addition to the roster at the close of camp. The Saints cut fourth-round pick Antonio Pittman to make room for Thomas and haven't regretted it, as Thomas has gotten onto the field both on special teams (with a touchdown, no less) and as an occasional change-of-pace back.
The vastly improved defense: Well ... a fan can wish.
The Jets were burned by Brian Westbrook in the first quarter and early second quarter, but after that the defensive ends did a nice job of preventing Westbrook from getting off his block and releasing into a pattern. Westbrook would chip and the defensive end would try to square up on him to hold him in the backfield.
I haven't charted in previous seasons, but I don't remember Westbrook bowling as many people over as he has this year. He's been fairly beastly at times.
The Giants-Eagles game was a complete breakdown of the Eagles' offensive line. On several of the sacks, Herremans would try to help, but Justice would actually wind up hurting him by freeing Umenyiora from the block. I wonder if Herremans' knee was hurting his mobility and this was why he was seemingly rushed into surgery. Also there were several plays where Strahan abused Runyan and would have had the sack but Umenyiora got to McNabb first.
Reggie Brown looked disinterested against both the Giants and Redskins. Fairly disappointing in what should be a breakout year.
William James was abused by both the Giants and Redskins. Contrary to his belief, he should not be a starting corner.
What's happened to the downfield passes to Hank Baskett from last year? Baskett's been fairly inconsequential. He has shown some nice run-blocking ability. They used him repeatedly as the lone receiver on the field in the three-tight end power formation they debuted against the Jets.
McNabb's accuracy hasn't been that noticeable an issue since the Washington game.
I charted one half of Tampa Bay-Indianapolis, and Dallas Clark lined up in the slot 26 times. He lined up as a tight end only eight times.
In Chicago-Dallas, Marion Barber picked up the blitz on several occasions. His only "mistake" was really caused by the fullback getting in his way and allowing the blitzer to come free on Tony Romo. I was surprised how much Dallas used tight end Anthony Fasano as a fullback instead of Deon Anderson.
Dallas repeatedly used the fake end around to try and open up the rushing lanes. It was pretty effective as they gained six yards on first-and- 9, 22 yards on second-and-5, six yards on second-and-6, plus a meaningless four yards on second-and-20. Not having charted any other Dallas games, I don't know if this is something they do frequently or if it's something they felt would be particularly effective against Chicago.
The biggest problem the Texans have nearly every week is DeMarcus Faggins. He wasn't good last year either, but this year he's been systematically targeted by more than a few teams. Faggins gives up huge cushions to opposing receivers because he knows he can't keep up with them down the field. The Texans have tried to remedy this by turning to Fred Bennett, but this puts Faggins in the nickel role, which means he's still on the field way too much. Von Hutchins hasn't really been too bad so far, but C.C. Brown is a terrible tackler (see Fred Taylor's monster carry in the first half last week) and isn't much better in coverage. The Texans are going to need to address their secondary in the draft or in free agency next off-season if they want to be a real contender.
On the other side of things, the defensive line has really been a revelation this year. A vast majority of the sacks they got in the first few weeks were just on four-man fronts, usually through stunts. Mario Williams draws double teams and Amobi Okoye has been proving that he's not someone you can leave alone either. While no-one else on the line is especially good, nobody is appreciably bad either. The Texans' biggest problem with stopping the run is that they don't have anyone who can go sideline-to-sideline other than DeMeco Ryans. So when the ball gets pitched out, the back can usually find a hole, get into open space with only C.C. Brown or Faggins around, and now you see why the Texans are 27th in the NFL when it comes to allowing 10-plus-yard runs.
I don't know if I'm being too hyperbolic by suggesting that Matt Schaub is a top ten quarterback in this league, but note that he's thrown for over 200 yards in every game without Andre Johnson. The receiving corps right now consists of perennial free agent Andre' Davis, perennial fourth-stringer Kevin Walter, and assorted fill-ins like Harry Williams and David Anderson that the team has been forced to use with all the injuries at the wideout spot. Schaub is good for one or two head-shaking plays every week, usually trying to Favre something into triple coverage or fumbling on one of the rare (for us Texans fans, anyway) sacks he takes, but he's been tremendous all season and he looks extremely comfortable. Most of all: He knows when he has to get rid of the football.
The offensive line has looked surprisingly good this year at protecting Schaub, but it has come at the expense of good run blocking. Where the Texans line used to be able to get plenty of push and be completely unable to protect the quarterback, it's now gone to a point where instead of being at both extremes, they're just wholly average. Eric Winston has been a tremendous help for the pass blocking, and the best results for running occur when Chester Pitts is asked to create a hole.
The difference between old punter Chad Stanley and new punter Matt Turk is about the same as the difference between "This Is Our Country" and "Terry Tate: Office Linebacker."
I've noticed some distinct tendencies of the Chargers offense so far in the Norv era. If the Chargers line up in a straight I formation, they're almost guaranteed to run the ball. If they line up in an offset I, then it could go either run or pass. Whenever Brandon Manumaleuna is lined up as an H-Back, it's going to be a pass. Some coaches are of the opinion that you should be able to run the ball even when the defense knows that you're going to run it. Watching defenses put eight in the box and run-blitzing against the Chargers has convinced me of something: That line of reasoning is absolute rubbish.
There have been three occurrences so far this season where Philip Rivers has thrown the ball to Tomlinson while LT2 wasn't looking for it. Once it bounced off of his head, once it was picked off, and once it bounced off his back leg. The first two looked as if Tomlinson didn't think he would get the ball so he didn't bother looking at the quarterback, while the third was Rivers throwing it too early due to pressure.
Antonio Cromartie is starting to catch on more and more. He is showing the potential to be able to claim the dubious honor of the Charger's best cornerback. Ted Cottrell likes to use rookie cornerback/safety/(fill in the blank) Eric Weddle as a blitzer. It will be interesting to see how they expand his role as the season progresses. Last season you couldn't put just a running back or tight end on Shawne Merriman, but it appears to be working more effectively this season, making it tougher to buy his tainted supplements story. Shaun Phillips, on the other hand, has been an absolute beast.
(Ed. note: Potential? As far as I'm concerned, Cromartie is already San Diego's best cornerback. -- Aaron)
The Chargers have been surprisingly ineffective at rushing the quarterback when sending five guys. That is a contributing factor to their moribund pass defense. It's easier to exploit a six-man zone than it is a seven-man zone, especially when the quarterback has plenty of time to throw.
While Darren Sproles isn't the best return guy in the league, he sure is fun to watch. He's also gotten a lot better at securing the football, particularly on punts. It will be interesting to see if they ever start using him on third downs like the Chargers used to use Ronnie Harmon. Nate Keading has been steadily improving his kickoff distance and continues to be accurate on field goals. Mike Scifres' punts have been uncharacteristically unspectacular so far this season.
From the games I have charted, Denver has shown clear weaknesses in every facet of the game.
Defense: Jim Bates has brought a new scheme to Denver and so far, it hasn't worked out too well. The question now is whether the problems on the defense are a result of players learning a new scheme, being the wrong players for the scheme or just not being very good. It's probably a bit of all three.
Other than some effective outside speed rushes by Elvis Dumervil, the defensive line routinely fails to get any sort of pressure on the quarterback. This unit has also done a poor job of allowing blockers to get past them to the second level, which is a large part of why the team has been so poor against the run. The Broncos rotate a large number of players on the front four, but with the lone exception of Dumervil, none of them have stood out.
There are big problems at both outside linebacker positions, as Ian Gold -- once a fast, speedy linebacker with good coverage skills -- has been getting beat easily by opposing tight ends, and Nate Webster is also poor in coverage and is often out of position in trying to defend the run. D.J. Williams is the lone bright spot as he has played well in both run and pass defense, specifically making some nice plays behind the line of scrimmage in defending the run. As far as the schemes, go the linebackers hardly ever blitz and are usually nowhere near the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped.
In the secondary, the main problem is Nick Ferguson. Opposing teams have targeted him or the zone he is supposed to be covering quite a bit. And he hasn't done very well in response. Dre' Bly has been OK, as he's made some nice plays and had a few nice interceptions, but he also gotten beat badly when he tried to jump a route against Oakland in Week 2, allowing Joey Porter an easy 46-yard touchdown. Whenever Domo nique Foxworth is in the game, opposing teams have targeted him with great success. Champ Bailey hasn't had much to do as teams aren't even bothering to throw in his direction, though he has still managed to make something of an impact with some nice tackles in run support.
In sum, because the team has been so bad against the run, opposing offenses have been in very makeable third-down situations, and Oakland, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and San Diego have all had very long, time-consuming drives that resulted in touchdowns. Oakland and Jacksonville didn't even bother to pass the ball much and were able to score. The defense seems to be designed to let the corners play tight, have the linebackers drift into coverage and get pressure with the front four, but due to the lack of pressure, teams have had all day to throw and been able to pick apart the weak spots in coverage, all while staying away from Bailey.
Offense: The best word to describe this offense is inconsistent. Sometimes it looks very good and other times it looks downright horrible. That probably stops and starts with quarterback Jay Cutler, as he has shown flashes of what made Denver hand over the keys so early in his career, but he has also made plenty of decisions and throws that remind one of the fact that he is still a very young quarterback who has a lot of growing to do. He has a rocket for an arm, but doesn't have much touch, and has a problem getting too much air under some of his longer throws, leading to underthrown balls that have been defensed or intercepted. As the quarterback has been inconsistent, so has the offense as a whole.
The offensive line, despite changes in personnel, has continued to open up holes in the running game and provide Cutler with adequate time to pass the ball. It has allowed some pressure to get to Cutler, but has been relatively good at preventing sacks.
The running game has been OK. Sometimes Henry hits the hole hard and gains positive yardage, but there have been times when he has looked hesitant in the backfield, leading to loss of yardage. Selvin Young is a nice change-of-pace back who excels at catching the ball in the open field, but Denver has gotten a little cute with him at times, trying shotgun draws designed to run off tackle near the goal line, which doesn't play to his strengths at all.
The wide receivers have been decent, but with Javon Walker being injured, it forces Brandon Marshall into the No. 1 spot, which he might not be ready for. When he catches the ball, he is tough to bring down and always fights for more yardage, but he has dropped some catchable balls, and he had a crucial fumble against San Diego when he attempted to gain more yardage after a long catch. The tight ends have not been a big factor, as Tony Scheffler was hurt to start the season and Daniel Graham hasn't been used for much more than blocking and short routes.
Denver changes up their formations quite a bit, going from two backs to one back, from no tight ends to two and three tight ends, and from wide receivers bunched near the line of scrimmage to split wide. And these changes aren't from game to game or even drive to drive, but from play to play. No idea if this is a good or bad thing, but it stood out in stark contrast when they played Indianapolis and San Diego, which ran their offenses from the same formations over and over and over again. Indy was consistently three-wide with a slot receiver to the left, while Sn Diego was in love with an offset I and twin wide receivers to the right.
Special Teams: While we don't chart special teams play, just watching with a naked eye is enough to know that the return and coverage teams on punts and kickoffs is atrocious and is potentially a big reason why the team as a whole has struggled. Opposing teams always seem to have good field position to start their drives, and Denver always seems to be backed up against their own goal line. Add in Jason Elam missing some field goals and it's easy to see why Denver is ranked last in Special Teams DVOA.
I feel at a disadvantage about coming up with anything new about the Giants, considering they are probably one of the most heavily discussed teams in the NFL, and they were just featured in an excellent profile in Mike Tanier's Too Deep Zone column. I thought I would compare my observations to the observations I made as a Giants charter two years ago:
Secondary: The cornerbacks are still probably the weak point of this team, but Sam Madison, Corey Webster, and Kevin Dockery are a huge improvement over what they had in 2005. At the end of that season, I started to think Webster was their best corner, and I'd have to say Madison and Dockery are far superior.
Linebackers: The linebackers were probably the weak point of this team two years ago, and were absolutely atrocious last year, in large part due to injuries. I still think Mathias Kiwanuka looks funny in coverage, but going with Kiwanuka, Antonio Pierce, and Kawika Mitchell seems better than anything they had the last two seasons. It also allows them get Kiwanuka on the field even though he's really a defensive end.
Defensive Line: The absolute strength of this team, as documented in the aforementioned Too Deep Zone column. Additionally, the Giants have definitely moved out of a lot of the straight four-man puss rushes that they ran the last two years and really mixed it up. The importation of the Eagles' scheme has really helped.
Eli Manning: Seems to have improved his accuracy, but there is still one glaring thing bothering me: He has a tendency to throw an interception prior to halftime. Just before halftime in the Falcons game, Ron Jaworski mentioned this tendency in the telecast. Two plays later, Manning threw a pick. That was his fourth interception in six games in the last two minutes of the first half.
Wideouts: BPlaxico urress really has developed something with Manning during his time here. Subjectively, I agree with the announcers who say he doesn't seem lazy any more. He has made some great efforts to catch some of Manning's throws that are slightly off target. Although up there in age, Amani Toomer still seems a relatively reliable second wide receiver.
Jeremy Shockey: Still the same player he was two years ago. A very good blocking tight end, and makes some good catches. However, he still seems to have a tendency to occasionally drop one that should have lead to a first down. In one of the games I charted, Troy Aikman mentioned this tendency as well.
Offensive Line: Seems to be holding up well with David Diehl moved to left tackle. I know I have him marked for at least one blown block on a sack, but he seems to be doing well.
Running Backs: Neither Derrick Ward nor Brandon Jacobs has the combined rushing and receiving ability of Tiki Barber, but the two of them really don't seem to have a problem acting as one Tiki Barber. The Giants have used a fullback rotation of Madison Hedgecock and Michael Matthews, who also plays tight end. Reuben Droughns has basically been limited to an occasional short-yardage back.
I know the FO preview of the Giants caused some controversy this year. My feeling? Certainly, they'll play closer to the DVOA projection of 8-8 than the subjective projections that had them picking up the first pick in the draft. Some of their defensive flaws may stop them from winning the NFC East, however.
Offense: Everyone has heard and read about Pennington's lack of arm strength. And it is true that he lacks the good fastball of, say, Carson Palmer. However, in his defense, this seems to be an overrated point. The Jets have 19 passing plays over 20 yards (13th in the NFL) and three passing plays over 40 yards (tied for 11th in the NFL), so the Jets are getting chunks of yards in the passing game. What Pennington lacks in arm strength he makes up for in accuracy, as he often puts the ball in a position where his receiver can do something after the catch. On the down side, Pennington has turned the ball over at some critical moments and seems to be forcing plays this season. Against the Eagles, for example, he seemed to be trying to create big plays that were not there.
The real problem with the Jets offense lies in two areas: First -- and this rarely gets mentioned by announcers or the New York media -- the Jets get practically no production from their supporting players in the passing game. After Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery (41 receptions each), there is no legitimate threat to the defense at tight end, out of the back field or at the No. 3 wide receiver spot. This limits the Jets when they go no-huddle, because these other players can't exploit potential mismatches that should be created when the defense cannot substitute. Leon Washington is third on the team in receptions with 15 catches, and eight of those were in the Buffalo game on unproductive checkdowns (eight catches for 38 yards, a 4.8 average). Justin McCareins has three catches all season and had three drops in the Baltimore game alone, including the potential game-tying touchdown. Brad Smith has shown potential, but it seems like the Jets coaching staff is so focused on making him a do-everything gadget player that he isn't getting a chance to develop as a wide receiver.
(On a side note, Coles and Cotchery are a very good and underrated combination at wide receiver. Coles has made some great catches this season against double coverage and Cotchery reminds me of Sterling Sharpe after the catch. He rarely goes down on first contact.)
Secondly, the offensive line has to be one of the worst run-blocking units in football. Right guard Brandon Moore often blows blocking assignments in the running game. Left guard Adrian Clarke rarely gets movement, and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson simply isn't a power player. It's a shame too, because Thomas Jones is much better runner than I thought. He has outstanding vision and feel for the cutback lanes. Because of the offensive line's lack of production in the running game, the Jets seem to always be in third-and-long situations. Ironically, the offensive line is usually good in pass protection (outside of the Baltimore game when Clemens was at quarterback), and along with the backs recognizes and pick up blitzes well.
Defense: Simply put, the Jets defense is a disaster. This 3-4/4-3 hybrid scheme doesn't generate any kind of consistent pressure. Bryan Thomas, Victor Hobson and David Bowens have been a huge disappointment as edge rushers. Teams rarely need to keep extra blockers in against the Jets unless it is a heavy blitz with six or more rushers. In the secondary, David Barrett is a glaring weak link and teams constantly attack him. He seems to give up two big plays every game. Kerry Rhodes is still an outstanding safety. He is playing more man-to-man coverage and blitzing a little less this year. Rookie cornerback Darrelle Revis could be a future Pro Bowl player. He plays very tight in coverage and is a very good tackler for a corner. The free safeties Eric Smith and Erik Coleman seem to miss a lot of tackles. Smith missed Kevin Curtis to give up the 75-yard score against the Eagles.
The run defense is flat-out terrible. Jonathan Vilma is an average linebacker in this defense and rarely makes any big plays. The front seven as a whole just gets pushed around, and the inside linebackers seem to be playing further from the line of scrimmage to compensate for their lack of size and strength. If the Jets are going to play this scheme, they may be better off trading Vilma while he still has value. Rookie linebacker David Harris has shown flashes of being a good run defender. Left end Shaun Ellis may be on the downside of his career. He's very inconsistent. Surprisingly, nose tackle Dewayne Robertson, though undersized, has been solid.
One criticism of Bill Cowher was always that he didn't get the Steelers' tight ends involved in the offense enough. That critique can't be applied to Mike Tomlin. After six games, Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 13 touchdown passes; eight of those have been to tight ends.
Accuracy in the second half: Ben Roethlisberger has completed a remarkable 86 percent of his passes in the second half in the Steelers' last two games against the Broncos and Seahawks.
Dick LeBeau's defense is all about bringing pressure. With both defensive tackle Casey Hampton and defensive end Aaron Smith drawing double teams, the linebackers have been able to take advantage of the gaps and get to the quarterback more often. They frequently run a play where Hampton takes on the center and a guard, and linebackers Larry Foote and James Farrior cross over behind Hampton and then blitz the quarterback, which causes a lot of confusion for the offensive line. On more than the majority of these calls, either Foote or Farrior gets pressure on the quarterback.
Left tackle Vernon Carey was once considered a disappointment, yet another bust in the long line of first-round busts for the Dolphins. The guy was picked 19th overall, and the Dolphins had to jump New England in fear they'd end up taking him, giving up a fourth-rounder in the process. Turns out New England picked up Vince Wilfork, who has looked like an absolute stud, and since Carey hasn't been visiting Hawaii, the Dolphins have to be feeling cheated, right? Not quite. Carey had already matured into a superb right tackle (anchoring the right side of the line in 2006, where the Dolphins ran often and ran well), but this season, Carey has demonstrated he's also matured into a pretty decent left tackle. Sure, he's not dominating -- he struggles against speed rushers -- but he's provided stability for the Dolphins at a position where they were in dire need of some solid play. While releasing Damion McIntosh was probably a mistake (he could've solidified the right tackle spot; more on that in a second), Carey has filled in pretty well. Center Samson Satele is another player who has excelled: He stepped in as a rookie and has more than replaced Rex Hadnot, who has been moved to right guard. This is not a slight to Hadnot, but a nod to Satele's play: The guy hasn't made any gruesome miss in the line calls, he has dominated lesser defensive tackles and reasonably controlled the better ones (particularly Vince Wilfork in the last game), and he looks to be a very good second-round pick for the Dolphins. These two guys are the strength of the line, and the best part is, they're still young.
Right tackle L.J. Shelton and right guard Hadnot have not played well. Shelton is probably better suited for a guard position, but management saw him in a tackle position, where he has filled in decently. He's still a liability against speed rushers (I'm cringing at the thought of Umenyiora, Kiwanuka or Strahan lined up against him), but he's pretty good in run blocking, and is not an immediate liability. Hadnot has moved from right guard to center and back again, and he's still better suited for the center position With the way Satele has been playing at center, though, Hadnot's best bet to remain on the team is to improve against powerful defensive tackles, his greatest weakness (Sapp in particular made a case to bench him in the Raiders game). Still, he's probably better than anything the Dolphins have on the bench, so like Shelton, he can remain playing for a while. These guys are just not long-term solutions.
Left guard Chris Liwienski is probably the weakest spot of the line. Coach Cam Cameron stated during the preseason that he wanted the "biggest bodies" at the tackle positions, and while Carey worked out great, it might've made more sense to stick Shelton at this spot. Shelton played pretty well at guard last year, and would've made a nice complement to Hadnot -- and probably would've made an impressive left side overall. Instead, the Dolphins signed Liwienski in the off-season, and he's proven ill-suited to match up against powerful defensive tackles, speed rushers, basically everyone who can suit up on the defensive side of the ball. This might sound exaggerated, but I've seen him miss key blocks in key situations, no real speed in the couple of pulls he's been involved in, and lack of effort in downfield blocking (which is probably a combination of the previous two problems).
Offense: Cameron likes to run formations in which he overloads one side of the line (two tight ends and a wide receiver, for instance) and then runs/bootlegs/screens to the other. This is nothing new around the NFL, but it's huge in Miami, where previous coaches almost always ran the play towards the overloaded side. Right now, these plays are catching the defense off guard for big games.
Before he was traded, Chris Chambers saw a lot more of the slot this season. This lead to better matchups in the inside, though not necessarily better stats: He still dropped a lot of passes. I expect Ted Ginn to fill in at the same role-- just like he did in the Patriots game -- and perform better. He has a bigger burst of speed, and his hands look better. The general thought was that Ginn was to be Chambers v.2 (just see PFP 2007), but I think a more apt comparison is another receiver no longer on the Dolphins: Wes Welker. He won't be a No. 1 (even a No. 2) any time soon, so Miami better hope Derek Hagan matures into a solid option on the outside. Hagan still drops a few balls, though not as many as in years past. Marty Booker looks solid/good but is getting older and is not a long-term solution; still, he's probably the best receiver the Dolphins have right now. Cameron targets him as a possession receiver, and he's a pretty good one right now.
(Ed. note: Apologies to Sergio, but the development of Ginn into a Welker- or Engram-like slot technician seems really unlikely. -- Aaron)
Cleo Lemon has a good arm, and some scrambling ability, but I don't see how he can be the future of this team. He doesn't have enough accuracy, and still makes many mental mistakes (he remains somewhat oblivious of the play clock, for instance).
Defense: The front seven is done. No real injuries there, and they've looked like crap. They just can't seem to pressure the quarterback consistently, and it doesn't seem to be a problem of scheme (which looks the same as last year, no surprise considering they still have Dom Capers as defensive coordinator) as much as it is talent. Matt Roth looks like a decent long-term replacement for Jason Taylor, but he's still a downgrade. Youngsters like Roth, defenisive tackles Rodrique Wright and Paul Soliai, and end/linebacker Abraham Wright are the hope of this team, and they do have talent, but it's too little, too late for this defense. Short of a magnificent, defensive-heavy 2007 draft, the Dolphins defense is no longer a good unit, let alone elite.
Do you want a particularly glaring mistake in scheme, though? Week 6 against the Browns, the Dolphins had Jason Taylor drop back to cover. And not a little zone in the flat, I'm talking about a linebacker-type zone in the left side of the field, such as one you would see in the Cover-2. Twice in the first half. Having little talent doesn't help; grossly misusing whatever little talent available positively hurts.
Still, their 32nd-ranked defense is as much a product of no pressure up front and missed tackles by the linebackers as it is a product of their lousy secondary. Four safeties are down, yes, and losing Yeremiah Bell is a huge loss for this defense, but the problems dig deeper. Other than Will Allen (above average) and Michael Lehan (hovering around average), the Dolphins lack NFL-quality defensive backs. Last year's first-rounder, Jason Allen, is a particularly bitter disappointment for the Dolphins, and this unit looks to have a long way back to respectability. The Dolphins are still playing a lot of deep-two coverage, and offenses are abusing this as much as humanly possible. The Dolphins have usually answered with a deep-three look, but this leaves the front seven mighty vulnerable against the run (or routes up the middle, take your pick).
Offensive: San Francisco's offensive line problems became really evident when Trent Dilfer replaced Alex Smith. The line seems to make three to five mistakes per game that allow rushers to come in untouched. Smith was injured on one of these instances. Smith could sometimes run away from the pressure, but Dilfer is a statue in the backfield. Larry Allen had two blown blocks and Justin Smiley had one in the first half. On two other plays, Seattle had rushers come through untouched. And these are just plays that resulted in sacks, without even mentioning the hurries.
The protection was a little better against Baltimore, probably because Jim Hostler, the offensive coordinator, went conservative. Fourteen of 19 pass attempts were thrown less than ten yards downfield. Dilfer finally tried to throw it long and was picked off early in the second half. That 15-yard attempt was his longest attempt to that point.
San Francisco's offensive game plan against the Rams was embarrassing. They ran Gore into the line repeatedly as long as they were ahead. The 49ers used six offensive linemen on a whopping nine plays in the second half against St. Louis. After they went up 17-16 late in the game, they went exclusively to that formation.
There's not a lot of creativity in San Francisco's play-calling. Everything is starting out of the offset I with two wide receivers, and it seems like most of the runs are off-tackles or blasts up the middle. There's no potential for yards after catch on any of the completed passes to wide receivers, as they are mostly intermediate passes where the receiver is waiting for the ball or coming back to the quarterback. So far, Darrell Jackson is a horrible fit -- he's never in position to run after the catch, and he doesn't have the greatest hands so he drops quite a few deep passes.
Defense: San Francisco brought a lot of pressure against Arizona in the second half. I charted five or more rushers on 14 of 24 passing plays. In spite of this, Matt Leinart had a hard time finding open receivers. Both Nate Clements and Walt Harris had excellent coverage games. Most of Arizona's offensive success came through running the ball.
San Francisco brought pressure on 14 of 28 second-half plays against the Rams. This seems like a really high number. Marc Bulger did a good job to start the third quarter. After that he couldn't find a rhythm until the last drive -- San Francisco only sent four rushers until the Rams got close the midfield.
Clements had a good game against Torry Holt. On the one big play Holt had in the second half, Clements punched the ball out of his hands for a touchback. I didn't chart this, but Holt's touchdown grab was almost knocked away by Clements; Bulger really bulleted it in through a small window.
Both Pittsburgh and San Francisco bring a lot of pressure. I counted five or more rushers on 22 of 35 passing plays in the second half.
San Francisco only brought pressure on five of 22 plays against Seattle in the first half. It seemed like they really respected Matt Hasselbeck's ability to find the open man and punish the blitz.
San Francisco brought pressure in nine of 18 second-half plays against Baltimore. They were mostly content to let McNair dink and dunk his way into third downs. Baltimore's only points that half came on a field goal after an interception.
Observations of Other Teams: St. Louis lined up Randy McMichael in the backfield a few times as a second running back in the shotgun. He had to pick up a blitz one time and did a horrible job -- he doubled up on an inside rusher and let the outside guy come in untouched. I'm interested to hear from a Rams charter whether St. Louis does this a lot.
Isaac Bruce had a field day against Walt Harris. When Harris played off him, Bruce got a bunch of 9- and 10-yard catches. When Harris was a little tighter at the line, Bruce ran some fantastic intermediate routes to get open. Harris did make a good play near the end of the game to knock away a potentially long completion.
Ben Roethlisberger was a beast against San Francisco. He shrugged off three or four sacks and created positive plays. People who watched the Sunday night game against Denver probably noticed the same thing.
Rewind to 2005 for a moment. The Bengals are starting two very promising rookie linebackers, David Pollack and Odell Thurman. They also have two-second year pros who appear to be quality contributors in Landon Johnson and Caleb Miller. This defense, led by a young linebacker corps, was on the rise.
Two years, a major suspension, and a catastrophic injury later, and the Bengals have been searching the NFL equivalent of the garbage dump to fill out their starting lineup. Lemar Marshall, Anthony Schlegel, and Dhani Jones were all released by their respective teams prior to the start of the regular season, but they have been signed by and started for the Bengals. The Bengals have been so desperate that both a safety (Chinedum Ndukwe) and a defensive end (Robert Geathers) have been tried at linebacker. Geathers has been moved indefinitely to linebacker after starting in Weeks 5 and 6.
The losses of Pollack and Thurman are not the only hardships the linebacking corps has had to overcome. Both Ahmad Brooks and Rashad Jeanty, projected opening day starters, have been hurt for most of this season. Their backups, Caleb Miller and Lemar Marshall, have been injured themselves since Week 3. These issues have affected their defense greatly, forcing them to rely more on chaotic, high-risk and high-reward blitz schemes in nickel packages with varying results.
Cincinnati's poor special teams can also be traced to weak linebackers. With no talent or depth, everyone is getting burned -- especially on kickoff coverage.
Brad Childress gets a lot of grief over much of how he runs the show in Minnesota, but he does draw up some good plays. Although his receivers can't get much separation on their own, the plays often do produce an open receiver, and several times they've had people wide-open for what should be touchdowns, but on almost every one of these the throw has been off, usually overthrown. Against Chicago, they even had fullback Tony Richardson streaking alone down the sideline, not even that far downfield but there was no-one in front of him ... and the ball was uncatchable.
Tarvaris Jackson has serious accuracy problems, and they are worse when he is under any kind of pressure. Other than one or two scrambles where he got some yards, I have not seen him make a positive play once he got some pressure or had to scramble. Usually the best result he gets out of these situations is throwing it to the feet of the closest eligible receiver so it isn't intercepted.
Jackson does not know how to fake a handoff. It is a challenge even identifying plays in which he does play action because it is so subtle, so weak, I can't imagine any defenders being fooled by it. It is an extremely slight motion. In slow motion or repeated viewing you can see it, and partly spot it on plays where the running back is going by him so it's part of the design of the play, but he makes no attempt to sell the handoff.
While it is obvious to just about anyone that Adrian Peterson is better than Chester Taylor, Taylor has been running well and does get past the first level about as often (especially the last few weeks). The main difference is what happens once they get past that first level -- Taylor does not compare in the open field or have the breakaway speed.
On defense, the Vikings have several liabilities. Chad Greenway is a liability in coverage as a linebacker, his name comes up by far the most often in the "DEFENDER1" column of successful pass plays against a linebacker. Many of these are the drive-sustaining third-down completion type plays. The other defenders who get picked on in pass coverage are Marcus McCauley and Cedric Griffin -- the former in the more recent games, the latter more in the earlier games.
The Vikings defense seems to wear out in games where its offense is particularly inept, especially on hot days. The two best examples of this were the Kansas City game and the Dallas game. In both of these games, Minnesota had a seven-point lead at halftime and could not get off the field late in the game.
The Vikings offensive line, despite its talent, has had serious blocking scheme issues. In many games the defense could get pressure with four rushers, even when the vikings kept six or seven to block. Many times I saw a play in which the Vikings had an extra blocker or two blocking no-one on one side (usually the left) while a rusher came in on the other side against only a tight end or a running back which he cleanly beat.
42 comments, Last at 29 Oct 2007, 11:19pm by Gonzo