The FO crew takes on the top contenders as the playoff field rounds into shape. Plus: the great Drew Brees debate of 2014.
21 Dec 2007
compiled by Vince Verhei
This week, we once again give Mike Tanier a well-deserved week off and turn Too Deep Zone over to our game charters. 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. That also means we get to watch every game closely, and everybody has some thoughts on what has gone right -- or, in this case, wrong -- with the team they love.
As a companion piece, we'll be running some of the early pass coverage stats later today.
Offensively, the whole seems to be less than the sum of the parts this year. Kurt Warner is guaranteed to have one egregious mistake within the first quarter that puts the team behind the eight-ball. Also, his bionic arm seems to have really affected his accuracy to the point where he's not hitting very tight windows. I don't think this is a case where he's losing some heat on his fastball; it might be a balance issue. Also, he was handing the ball off with his right hand, regardless of the direction of the running play, until last week. I don't know how this hasn't resulted in a fumble! Edgerrin James has run quite hard this year (as opposed to when he started dancing and/or gave up last year), but he doesn't have the ability to make the second-level players miss. The line is doing a good to great job of opening up holes for him, and their play is night-and-day when compared to last year. They're not getting average production consistently from Leonard Pope, Jerheme Urban (drops!), or Steve Breaston. They might want to try lining up J.J. Arrington in a Bush- or Westbrook-type of role on the outside since they like the 4- and 5-WR formations so much.
The defensive line has been able to generate pressure on the quarterback all year, while playing decent against the run. What's surprising is they really haven't missed Bertrand Berry that much; pass pressure is still strong. The linebacker play has been a marked improvement over last year, flying all over the place to make a tackle at the point of attack. In particular, Karlos Dansby has been playing exceptionally well defending run and pass. The secondary has been a problem all year simply because they don't have the talent or ability to guard a No. 1 reciever. Roderick Hood can blanket a No. 2, but gets worked by the No. 1 guy. Antrel Rolle is a huge gambler, which hurts him against elite guys (although you're not getting the pass interference and as many mistakes as last year). Eric Green is worthless, often burned easily even though he's fast, and struggles with any type of move. They should give up on trying to make him a cornerback, and switch him to safety as a last shot. Terrence Holt isn't that fast or quick (which hurts when trying to make open-field tackles), but is very sound and a good complement to the beast called Adrian Wilson.
(Ed. Note: Hood's pass coverage numbers are actually pretty good: 11th in Success Rate, fifth in yards per pass. Green's are very bad: 58th in Success Rate, 53rd in yards per pass.)
Special teams have been a disaster all year, excluding Breaston. Consistently getting penalties during returns (at least 20 blocks in the back!), horrific punting from Mike Barr (finally euthanized a couple of weeks ago in favor of veteran Mitch Berger), poor punt coverage, and Neil Rackers being an inconsistent flake! Breaston has been a phoenix rising from these pitiful ashes, breaking two long runs a game without fumbling. Too bad the rest of the guys can't get on his level!
You can see the improvement in coaching this year, it's night-and-day from last year. Russ Grimm has done a wonderful job with the offensive line, molding them into an above average unit. Offensive play-calling seems to be slanted significantly to the passing game, even when it's still early in a close game. This seems weird, because the running game keeps them on schedule, although it doesn't provide for big gains. I don't know the split, but it seems like the fullback's presence on the field has been a signal the Cardinals will run. When Matt Leinart was quarterback, this was usually a signal they were going to pass, with the fullback staying in to block. Improved line play has allowed the Cardinals to spent less time keeping extra blockers back on passing plays.
The Cardinals rarely run out of the 4-WR set, which makes it much harder to succeed in that formation. This is partially due to wide receivers picking up holding penalties regularly, especially Anquan Boldin. Whisenhunt has struggled with clock management -- the worst example being the end of regulation when the 49ers visited the desert -- and he has a tendency to get cute at the goal line with the gimmick plays and formations.
The defense has been split 50-50 between 4-3 and 3-4 fronts. The play of Michigan twins Alan Branch and Gabe Watson should enable a further transition to the 3-4 next year, if the Cardinals so choose; those guys have been solid at the point of attack. Other than using more three-lineman fronts, Clancy Pendergast hasn't changed much on the defensive side, with plenty of blitzes and an aggressive, swarming defense. The team has gone to more of a zone defense to compensate for Adrian Wilson's injury, which has left them quite vulnerable to the dumpoffs to running backs the past couple of weeks.
For next year, Arizona needs a true No. 1 cornerback. That would make the defense a top 10; the rest of the talent is there. A true 3-4 end to replace Berry (who everyone on radio thinks is gone) is a bonus, but keeping Berry is the right thing to do if the money works out. A scatback to create more explosive plays in the running game would be nice, but getting Leinart right, healthy, and productive would do so much more for the offense.
There was a sequence in the Detroit-Dallas game that typified the Lions' season (and perhaps the Cowboys' as well). The Lions had been using two-tight end sets regularly against Dallas (Note to Mike Martz: tight ends are not evil) and running the ball well.
So they can't get a yard with a jumbo package, they try two passes that both fail, they commit a silly penalty, perhaps partly because they're doing that crazy shifting, and then the ensuing kick-return coverage is awful (there were at least two "stacked" players). And the worst part is that both of the passes could have been touchdowns: the first was barely over McHugh's head, the second was just out of his reach. (Why are they not throwing a fade to Calvin Johnson every time? I don't know.)
Sure, Hanson's missed fourth-quarter field-goal attempt hurts, but it's more that the Lions can't get a yard in three tries. And why not go for it on fourth down, especially when you just forced a three-and-out, and you have one of the worst special teams in the league?
People keep bringing up the lack of rushing during the losing streak. Why bother to run when it doesn't work, especially in 3- and 4-WR sets? Which is better, passing on first-and-10 or passing on third-and-12?
Realistically, the Lions have two problems on offense. One is that they don't have the personnel to execute what seems to be Martz' ideal offense; the offensive line is spotty at best, the wide receivers fail to get separation (although they can run precise routes), and Jon Kitna can be forced into bad decisions. The other is that Martz won't make adjustments to compensate. It's pretty clear that, as you would expect, packages with fewer than four wide receivers provide more protection for Kitna, but Martz rolls out the 4-WR set time and time again, only to watch the drive stall with something like incompletion-incompletion-sack-punt (which just puts the bad punt-coverage unit on the field again).
Seven years ago, Paul Edinger made a field goal, St. Louis made the playoffs, and William Clay Ford was about to make one of the biggest mistakes in the history of the franchise. It is hard to say whether the Tampa Bay and Dallas games are signs that the Lions have finally returned to the point where they were at the end of the 2000 season, or if they are merely islands in the ocean of incompetence that is the Millen Era.
Two more items of note:
1. The first half of the Detroit-San Diego game was quite possibly the worst half of football I've ever seen, and I've seen some really bad football, especially in person ('98 Lions with Scott Mitchell and Brett Perriman losing a game to Cincinnati in overtime, 2000 Outback Bowl where Purdue blew a 25-point lead, Indiana football in the late '70s).
2. I don't know how Dovonte Edwards made the roster, but I find it hard to believe he played football in college. There were a few plays in the first half where it seemed as though he didn't realize he actually had to cover a receiver, not just look at him.
The Eagles are using Hank Baskett almost exclusively for run-blocking purposes. He's frequently the only receiver on the field in 2-TE sets, or he's lining up just off the tight end. During the second Eagles-Giants game, they even kept him in to pass protect on a play. I wonder if they're going to ask him to add 20 pounds in the off-season and try to turn him into a tight end to replace L.J. Smith.
The Eagles have been running quite a few gadget plays of late, with a very low success rate. At some point you have to realize that you'd be better off going for an average gain than taking the gimmick shot down the field. Too often, the trick plays have left them in second- or third-and-long and they haven't recovered.
And now, a tale of two quarterbacks:
QB1: 20-of-28, 251 Yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 11.0 DPAR.
QB2:27-of-42, 345 Yards, 3 TDs, 3 INTs, 7.5 DPAR.
QB1: In the half I charted, threw two errant passes for incompletions and was sacked twice.
QB2: In the half I charted, threw two errant passes for incompletions and sacked himself once.
QB1: Derided in the Philly media for an 'ugly' win where he was too often inaccurate.
QB2: Lauded in Philly Media for gutsy performance.
Guess who's who?
Donovan McNabb has always been reluctant to squeeze the ball to a well-covered receiver. That's one of the reasons for his low career interception rate. Lately though, perhaps due to a lack of confidence, he's seemed even more reluctant to do so. This was highlighted by A.J. Feeley's blatant stupidity in throwing it to the primary receiver regardless of how good the coverage was. The receivers did wind up making some plays on those Feeley prayers, which makes McNabb's reluctance to throw the ball to the well-covered receiver all the more frustrating.
Linebacker Chris Gocong had his best game of the season against the Pariots when Jim Johnson frequently used him as a blitzing linebacker or defensive end. He was used a few times in this capacity against the Seahawks and showed flashes. Maybe after the Eagles release Jevon Kearse and Darren Howard in the off-season, they should scrap the Gocong-to-LB project and have him bulk back up to move back to end. Ends Trent Cole and Juqua Thomas have been able to apply some good pressure throughout the season, but could use some help.
Speaking of Howard, he has made some nice plays in goal-line situations. Where the hell is he the rest of the time?
It might be time for the Eagles to draft three more defensive backs in the early rounds like they did in 2002. Though McNabb gets all the heat for missing games the last few seasons, Lito Sheppard has missed more than his fair share as well and hasn't held up well this year. He's been picked on all year due to a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness. You rarely see him jump routes this year for the big interception as he has in the past. While Sheldon Brown has generally played very well, he's made some uncharacteristically bad tackles after the catch this year. William James has been completely brutal and he's even been replaced recently as the nickel back by Joselio Hanson. Meanwhile, Dawkins has played better of late but hasn't had a spectacular season either. The Eagles definitely need to find his successor.
(Of course, I wrote these comments before the Cowboys game, where Sheppard jumped a route for an interception and Dawkins had an impact game.)
The question of exactly how bad the New Orleans pass defense is can be answered fairly decisively: It's the worst in the league. The only passing defense stat that goes the Saints way is covering No. 2 receivers, where they are ranked 10th. Otherwise, the Saints are worst in the league against No. 1 receivers and among the worst against tight ends, running backs, and other receivers. To be sure, last year's pass defense wasn't good either, but it was nowhere near the worst in the league.
After the jackpot off-season of 2006 produced the surprising championship game run, the Saints brain trust knew what they had: a great offense and a defense stretched to the limit. At the advanced age of 34, Fred Thomas was toasted badly late in the season and in the playoffs; he was clearly done. The draft saw two new corners come in, but both were thought to be projects; more immediate oomph was needed. Enter restricted free agent Jason David, tendered at the surprisingly cheap rate of a fourth-round draft pick by the Colts. Now we know why.
David, to be kind, is terrible. Kind? His 27 percent Success Rate is the worst in the league for any cornerback with 30 charted passes (through Week 11). He's also last in yards per pass at 16.0; the next-worst corner gives up 12.4. So yes, "terrible" is being kind. David has been so badly exposed this season that on one play, second-year safety Roman Harper actually started yelling at him while they were still chasing down one of David's failures on the way to the end zone.
Is it really all David's fault? After all, both Saints safeties are young. Harper won the starting safety job in camp as a rookie, but tore his ACL in his fifth game and gave way to journeyman Omar Stoutmire before reclaiming the job this year. It doesn't look like he's the problem. There aren't yet enough numbers from which to draw meaningful conclusions, though the ones we have are all positive -- his Success Rate was 62 percent last season and 50 percent so far this year, and his yards per pass are 5.2 (2006) and 8.4 (2007). He was clearly a better option than Stoutmire last year before going down, and has been reasonably good this year.
It's the same story with the other corner, Mike McKenzie. He's now fully recovered from his Green Bay malaise and is back in the ranks of good corners. Prior to Week 14 he hadn't given up a touchdown all year. His 62 percent Success Rate is 13th in the league, and his 6.0 yards per pass is 12th best. By numbers, he's actually better than last year's 61 percent Success Rate (6th) and 6.9 yards per pass (27th).
On some series -- such as early against Carolina in Week 12 -- the differences between McKenzie and David in both pass coverage and simple tackling were starkly contrasted. McKenzie's coverage is usually tight, while David is usually chasing; McKenzie is also usually actually watching his man, whereas David likes to watch the quarterback.
Is there a replacement on the roster? After all, Fred Thomas is still around. The 2006 numbers (51 percent Success Rate, 9.3 yards per pass) that cost him his job are dramatically better than those that aren't dislodging David from his in 2007. There's also Jason Craft, the nickel corner, who actually has more targets than David this year and has produced better numbers (53 percent, 6.4 yards per pass). One player who's clearly not ready, though, is rookie Usama Young. He has poor horrible numbers in limited playing time and makes numerous errors in run defense.
In the Colts' Tampa-2, David's deficiencies were somewhat hidden; corners almost always have safety help in that scheme. The Saints, though, like to play a Cover-1 man defense. As it turns out, that's probably the worst possible scheme for David, as it means his every mistake is amplified. Every time he bites on a pump fake, it's another long rundown for Harper as David trails vainly in the distance. Opposing offenses salivate at lining up their go-to receiver one-on-one with the Saints' right corner. It just doesn't look like the team's going to make a change this season, though, meaning a probably limited lifespan for the Saints as a potential playoff team.
Watch and learn? What could possibly be gained from watching San Francisco 49ers football every week in 2007? Well, if you've read Pro Football Prospectus 2007, you would see the evidence pile up that offensive line continuity is very important to the success of an offense as a whole. The Niners' O-line was a definite strength last season, as evidenced by Frank Gore's 1,695 rushing yards. Yet this season, Gore will barely cross the 1,000-yard mark, and there have been problems protecting the quarterback. It hasn't been just bad offensive line play; it's been bad pass protection by everyone, running backs and tight ends included. All of this ties in with continuity. Jonas Jennings started the season at left tackle, but was nicked up and missed a game due to personal reasons before landing on injured reserve in early November. Justin Smiley, who started the season at right guard, landed on injured reserve after Week 9 with a torn labrum. Now, with a stable line, the running game has been much more effective of late -- that is, when the team isn't down 17-0 or 27-0 at halftime.
Quarterbacks = Important: Alex Smith was a 50-percent passer his first season. He was up to 58 percent after starting every game last season, with only one game below 50 percent. This season, five of his six games were below 50 percent before "Shouldergate" and season-ending surgery. The Smith who came back after the shoulder separation was not the same Smith from before the injury. His accuracy was way off, which was one of the skills you could hang your your hat on. C'est la vie. It's life in the NFL. Smith's replacement was Trent Dilfer. Should I continue? Dilfer has been famine or slightly less famine this season. He's put together three 60-plus-percent games with four sub-50-percent games. His record as a starter is 1-6. For a quarterback known for being a "game manager," he makes a lot of dumb mistakes. He doesn't recognize the blitz well. He doesn't find his hot receiver. He fumbles snaps. He throws killer interceptions into coverage, including two pick-sixes. He can't avoid pressure. He can't make Darrell Jackson catch his passes. Maybe the last one isn't his fault? That's debatable. Jackson has seven dropped passes on the season, top ten in the NFL, but hasn't dropped one for Shaun Hill in twelve targets. Hill has shown a lot of poise and youthful enthusiasm in his six quarters as the 49ers' quarterback. He brings a certain confidence to the offense that wasn't there with Dilfer, despite his limited playing time. With Hill, the 49ers have an actual passing threat which keeps defenses from loading the box with defenders, creating room for Gore.
Offensive Penalties, Offensive Killers: I understand false start penalties on linemen. They aren't looking at the ball because they have to be ready to block as soon as the ball is hiked. On the other hand, there is no excuse for wide receiver/tight end/running back false starts. Total false starts for the 49ers this season: 23. False start leader for the 49ers this season: Vernon Davis, seven false starts. That's 31 percent of the team's total! I like V.D. (Vernon Davis, not the medical condition) and I think he can be near as good as his hype, but the pre-snap penalties have to stop.
Have You Seen Our Pass Rush? The Niners spent big on the secondary in the off-season. Nate Clements signed the largest defensive contract ever and has lived up to it. Michael Lewis has played better coverage than I was expecting, and the influence of Clements, Lewis, and Walt Harris has been remarkable on strong safety Mark Roman. He might be the most improved player on the defense. But what does the secondary have to do with pass rush? The great play of the secondary has minimized the impact of having almost zero pass rush this season -- the 49ers are 25th overall in sacks as a team. Give a quarterback enough time and he'll find an open receiver, and 49ers fans have found that to be quite true this season.
Patrick Willis: He gets his own category because he's that good. He is what I'd call a "creeper" -- he creeps up to the ball carrier, slicing through lanes with a calm, controlled, scary quickness. He's so good I'm shocked when he misses a tackle. It happened once, I swear. And he did most of his work this season with a cast on one of his hands. He's not perfect, however. He does struggle a bit in pass coverage, getting to his specific spot in a zone. So, he's really good and has room to improve. That might be the scariest thing about him.
Offensive Line: The two best linemen (left tackle Vernon Carey and center Samson Satele) have regressed somewhat in the past weeks. This is mostly due to the fact that they have faced better defensive lines (Giants, Steelers, and Ravens come to mind), but also because, well, Satele is a rookie and Carey is just getting adjusted to playing left tackle. Still, they remain the shining spots of this unit.
The rest of the offensive line is average. Not good, not bad, just average. I still believe their struggles have been more of an issue of playing out of position rather than lack of talent; L.J. Shelton would dominate as an inside lineman, for one. Still, the Dolphins would be very well advised to draft an elite tackle, either to return Carey to the right side (where he is a Pro Bowl quality player) or to man the right side himself.
The line definitely works better as a pass blocking unit, even though their numbers have been brought down by some unfortunate (read: pathetic) blocking efforts by the backs and tight ends. Of course, this is true for all teams, but the Dolphins seem to be plagued by these plays. In any event, they are much better in the short yardage department than in any other (rushing) category: They have converted a pretty good deal of short-yardage situations with relative ease.
(Ed. Note: The Dolphins rank 13th in power situations according to FO.com's advanced line stats.)
Offense: The loss of Trent Green and Ronnie Brown didn't seem to affect the Dolphins as much as the loss of a starting quarterback and running back would predictably hit a team. The loss of their 3-4-5 rushers, however, did. Still, some good came out of it. The team finally saw the potential that Lorenzo Booker has, and he's expected to be a significant part of the offense in the near future. Booker is a quick, agile runner with tremendous potential to break open a play or two in a game, and if the team can mold him into an apt pass catcher, he could round out the runners as a bona fide third-down back. This is particularly helpful for the Dolphins since Ronnie Brown probably won't be 100 percent next season.
The quarterback situation is confusing, to say the least. Cleo Lemon remains Cleo Lemon: a guy with impressive athletic ability and a cannon of an arm, but with little accuracy and questionable decision-making. He might hit a receiver in stride between two defenders one play, then the next he'll run out of bounds seven yards behind the line of scrimmage instead of tossing the football away. At this point in time the focus should be on second-rounder John Beck, but the coaching staff pulled him after three games and a series -- probably to give the team "the best chance to win." Needless to say, that's not what the team needs right now. Beck showed flashes in his first stint as a starter, but the play-calling while he was in was awful -- none of the rollouts, draws and such that were staples of this offense when Green or Lemon were playing. With such limited repertoire, Beck succumbed to the inevitable pressure that opposing defenses brought, mostly around the edges, with little or ineffective protection. Neither player looks like the future of the team right now, and with the Dolphins already on the clock, it might be very hard for the front office to (once again) pass on a franchise quarterback to settle the situation.
The wide receivers look promising, but raw. Veteran Marty Booker is officially a possession receiver, a tag that isn't all that bad in this offense, considering they have no-one else to fill that position. Derek Hagan continues his Chambers-like play, dropping easy balls and catching a few eye-openers. Another player in that vein is tight end David Martin; to quote a fellow Dolphins fan, "he reminds me of Randy McMichael, without all the talk." A consistent progress? Top pick Ted Ginn Jr. He's very much still developing, but he's not regressing and he looks to become a good receiver in this league -- still not quite worth the No. 9 overall pick, but not the total waste we (myself included) made him out to be.
Defense: The front seven looked mighty old at the beginning of the season, but the inclusion of young players is reversing that trend. Rookie Quentin Moses (picked off waivers) and second year defensive tackle Rodrique Wright look like a strong duo; coupled with third-year youngster Matt Roth and Jason Taylor, they form a pretty decent defensive line. Taylor, of course, might retire or become a cap casualty in the next couple of years. Channing Crowder remains quite a find for the Dolphins: He's a versatile player who can hold his ground in all linebacker positions, and is good both in coverage and in run support. Joey Porter seems to still be a good player, although not quite the force he was with Pittsburgh the past years. They form a strong core (remember, Porter is still 30 years old), though they do need a young linebacker to complement them.
The most dire need of the Dolphins, aside from quarterback, is defensive back. Granted, with the tremendous amount of injuries suffered in the safety position, one might be tempted to give them a pass, but the cornerbacks are an issue too. The Dolphins lack a great corner, and Will Allen, the best one the team has, is just not good enough. The good news? Jason Allen seems to be not the gigantic bust everyone thought he was.
23 comments, Last at 25 Dec 2007, 6:27pm by Kent