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?
19 Oct 2013
by Rivers McCown
This week's main essay will delve into a mailbag question that I thought could have some interesting results. From Braun Clarey:
I was wondering if you or anyone else has posted the success rates for plays inside of the 5 yard line with relationship to the number of wide receivers. In general, is it better to spread the defense out (i.e. Green Bay) or to just go heavy with extra lineman (i.e. San Francisco)? I don't know if this is possible with your charting numbers, but I feel it's a piece of strategy that has gone almost completely unnoticed.
Unfortunately, due to the volunteer nature of the charting project, I can't just make a few clicks and get that data together for 2013 right now. However, we do have the data for 2012, so let's play around with that a little bit.
-- 1641 of 32402 snaps last year were taken in goal-to-go situations. 801 of those were passes, 838 of them were rushes, and two of them were fake field-goal attempts.
-- 234 of the 801 pass attempts involved some form of play-action.
-- However, in Power Situations (i.e. those outlined in our Offensive Line Tables -- two yards or less on a goal-to-go situation), 320 of 505 total snaps were runs. Intuitively, that number seems a bit low to me, but I imagine that's anchored to both team situations (bad line play, bad running teams) and game situations (end-of-half plays where teams don't want to risk a running clock).
-- 672 of the 1641 snaps in goal-to-go situations featured three or more wide receivers. Only 93 of them came from inside the 2. (I'm aware that this washes away one particular set -- the two-tight end Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez spread -- but the versatility to run the ball is part of the reason that set was so hard to stop to begin with.)
-- 245 of the 1641 snaps in goal-to-go situations featured six or more offensive linemen. 207 of those were inside the 2. 224 of them were inside the 3.
Given these numbers, it's pretty clear that the six-lineman game is used almost exclusively inside the 3 -- the teams that used it on goal-to-go from outside the 3 were teams that used a lot of six-linemen packages to begin with, like the Jets and 49ers. Let's cobble together the Success Rates and see what last year's numbers can tell us, separating these plays into "goal-to-go" and "inside the 3."
|Goal-to-Go Success Rates, 2012|
|Overall Success||Pass Success||Run Success||6OL Success||3WR Success||PA Success|
|Inside the 3||52.3%||45.3%||57.2%||50.8%||49.7%||57.2%|
|Overall Attempts||Pass Attempts||Run Attempts||6OL Attempts||3WR Attempts||PA Attempts|
|Inside the 3||678||280||398||224||171||124|
And then, since Braun clearly stated that he wanted to know about six-lineman sets versus spread formations, here's a further breakdown of those as far as run versus pass:
|Further Breakdown of 6OL/3WR Success Rates, 2012|
|6OL Pass Success||6OL Run Success||3 WR Pass Success||3 WR Run Success|
|Inside the 3||44.2%||53.3%||41.6%||63.4%|
|6OL Pass Attempts||6OL Run Attempts||3 WR Pass Attempts||3WR Run Attempts|
|Inside the 3||61||163||108||63|
I don't think these results are shocking to anyone who pays attention to Football Outsiders. It's a fundamental tenet of our research that the fewer yards you need, the more productive the run game becomes. The red zone shrinks the field and makes passing windows shorter, and so the majority of successful passes in the red zone rely on play-action.
I will say that the number that was most interesting to me -- despite it being Small Sample Size Theater -- is how effective it was to run out of spread formations. I'm hesitant to put so much emphasis on those numbers because one of the teams that spent a lot of time running those plays last season was Denver. (The other was Detroit.)
When you look at how ridiculously successful the Broncos have been in the red zone this year despite the volume of looks they've received, it's pretty astonishing. Through Week 6, they have a 101.6% DVOA on red-zone passes (second to Miami), and a 42.5% DVOA on red-zone rushes (fourth). Obviously, it's early, but both those numbers would blow away last season's first-place finishers in each category. I think they just may be so abnormal that they blow the entire curb up. They have Peyton Manning and four receivers that can win pretty easily in a short area, either via speed or power.
I'll save this basic criteria and look at it again this offseason, when we have a little more time, and bring in 2013 and some more seasons from the past. I tend to think this is where the research will take us:
1) Lean towards the run in goal-to-go situations when you can, assuming normal personnel.
2) The more extreme formations may not be quite as effective in general as a standard formation, but the counter-punch (play-action for 6OL, run for 3WR) the extreme formations set up will make them more effective on important downs.
3) Having Peyton Manning on your team is a good thing if you like scoring points.
Want to submit a question of your own for this piece? Send to rivers-at-footballoutsiders.com. I promise nothing, especially if the idea isn't something that we can turn around easily in-season. But if you find the right sweet spot, your question will be featured.
Charting Jacksonville's first half against the Colts in Week 4 was a classic case of trying to discern some signal in the noise. I focused on Cecil Shorts during a half where he was the target of two interceptions. The Jaguars offense, held hostage by Blaine Gabbert and a bad offensive line, barely made any effort to get the ball down the field. On their lone scoring drive of the half, they gained six yards.
With Jeremy Ebert and Ace Sanders as the other receivers, any move by Shorts to get downfield was immediately met with safety help. Because Jacksonville was bereft of receivers, they spent a lot of this half shelling up in the I-Formation and running screens.
Because the Jaguars ran the ball for much of this half, I only charted 16 passing snaps. Shorts spent a lot of them either blocking -- including one Burn This Play nominee where he was blocking on the other side of a bootleg -- or running go routes on the outside.
Of course, he chipped in to the general malaise of the offense in his own right. He got a hand on both of the interceptions he was targeted on. The first one deflected off Vontae Davis' helmet, which was a bit unlucky. The second went right through his hands and into those of Darius Butler, who was playing the area behind Shorts and ran the ball back for a touchdown.
Putting the bad results aside, I just tried to focus on what he brought to the table. The Jaguars are at a point where they're just trying to identify whether a youngster is a replacement-level player, a capable starter, or an actual producer. Looking at just the traits that Shorts has, I think he's somewhere between the latter two. I was most impressed with his quick brakes on comeback routes -- his feet keep moving and don't get jammed in the ground long enough to let defensive backs react. His best ball was probably the first throw of the half, where he was led between Davis and safety Delano Howell on a slant and managed to hang on to a tough ball in traffic. This game notwithstanding, he's got the build and skill set to fight for the ball.
As I get to chart more of the Jaguars, I'm looking forward to seeing what happens when he and Justin Blackmon get on the field together. Obviously the overall passing numbers have been better with Blackmon back. I'm curious to see how having another good receiver impacts the coverages Shorts faces and the route combinations that Jedd Fisch calls. This half and its circumstances will probably be the outlier as the year goes on.
That said ... it was a really ugly half, and a tough watch.
by Andrew Potter
Tampa Bay at Atlanta -- 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
The last time Atlanta had a record this poor, the Falcons were starting the quarterback trio of Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich, and Chris Redman on their way to a 4-12 season. This year, quarterback isn't their problem -- Matt Ryan is fourth by both DVOA and DYAR -- but their offensive line is struggling, Julio Jones is out for the year, and their defense ranks 31st by DVOA (18.4%). Tampa Bay is the opposite: an effective defense (-11.3%, fifth) is being snowed under by an impotent offense (-19.2%, 29th) and Greg Schiano has taken the idea of sacking the quarterback to new extremes. Merging these two rosters would provide one of the best teams in the league, but divided they have a 1-9 record and plenty of holes to fill.
Chicago at Washington -- 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
Chicago sits at 4-2 thanks to their improved offense (12.6%, ninth) balancing out their declining and injury-hit defense (-4.2%, 13th). That defense still forces and returns turnovers at an impressive rate, however: nine interceptions, 12 forced fumbles, eight fumbles recovered, and four defensive touchdowns have so far compensated for their middling efficiency. Washington's offense is middle-of-the-pack by DVOA (0.5%), interceptions (five), and fumbles (eight, recovering four), but their special teams are horrendous (-17.6%, 32nd) and their defense isn't good either (9.8%, 26th) so they could easily be forced into taking more risks -- against this Bears defense, those risks have more chance of working against Washington than for them.
Dallas at Philadelphia -- 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
Last weekend's narrative had Tony Romo bouncing back from his five-touchdown one-interception 506 yard 223-DYAR performance in a loss to Denver with a one-touchdown one-interception 170-yard minus-25-DYAR performance in a win over Washington. Romo did bounce back, but not in the direction the narrative would have us think: the Dallas offense only gained 213 total yards and finished with a -3.0% DVOA, but the team won in part thanks to the defense (two interceptions and a fumble recovery, -3.2% DVOA) and in huge part thanks to their 38.9% DVOA special teams -- featuring over 220 yards and a touchdown on only four returns. Philadelphia has the third-worst pass defense and fourth-worst special teams in the league by DVOA, but DVOA leader Nick Foles -- yes, you read that right -- will once again start for an Eagles offense which is more efficient than the Cowboys' whether passing (36.8% versus 29.1%) or running (26.6% versus -1.9%). That all means once again Romo is likely to play well, but see his narrative determined by the performances of his defense and special teams.
New England at New York Jets -- 1:00 PM ET (CBS)
One of these AFC East teams has a struggling receiving corps and a quarterback who's displayed accuracy issues, but is overachieving due to its solid defense and reliable special teams. The other … is actually still the New England Patriots; for all their offensive travails and defensive improvement the Patriots are still not at the level of the Jets in either phase. New England is better on offense (-4.3% compared to -19.3%) and slightly better on special teams (7.2% compared to 5.2%), whereas New York is better on defense (-11.4% compared to -5.9%), and has home field advantage for this game. Week 2's Thursday Night contest featured drops by New England's receivers and interceptions by New York's quarterback in a sloppy, undisciplined game; look for the discipline to be better, if not necessarily the play as neither team has yet rectified those issues.
Buffalo at Miami -- 1:00 PM ET (CBS)
From backing up perennial all-pro Aaron Rodgers, to backing up third-round rookie sensation Russell Wilson, to backing up supplemental draftee Terrelle Pryor, to backing up Bills backup Thaddeus Lewis, what looks like darkness (to me) drifting down into Miami is really just the black hole into which Matt Flynn's professional career is gravitating. The Bills offense currently sits 16th by DVOA at -0.5%, and Miami's 28th-ranked defense (10.3%) is a favorable matchup for Lewis, but the Dolphins have a 3-2 record which outstrips their performance (25th by DVOA, -12.4%) and will fancy their chances against a quarterback who was only elevated from the practice squad less than a fortnight ago. Dolphins fans will also hope that their sack-and-fumble-prone offense can minimize mistakes against a dangerous Bills defense (-7.5%, ninth) which hasn't quite recaptured the heights of its five-interception performance against the Ravens in Week 4.
San Diego at Jacksonville -- 1:00 PM ET (CBS)
Jacksonville is a better team with Chad Henne at quarterback. The difference between Henne's -25.4% DVOA and Blaine Gabbert's -80.8% is almost as large as the difference between Henne and third-ranked Philip Rivers at 37.1%. Also aiding Jacksonville's recent improvement is the return of Justin Blackmon (13.6% DVOA, 28th): two of the Jaguars' best three offensive performances have come in the past two weeks. Averaging -29.6% DVOA is still terrible, however, and Philip Rivers leads a Chargers offense which is back to its old form: second in passing DVOA (56.3%) and fourth in total DVOA (21.5%). The Jaguars will have opportunities against a bad Chargers pass defense (30.2%, 29th), but Jacksonville's own pass defense is no great shakes (19.6%, 25th) and the Chargers are more likely to take their opportunities than the Jaguars are theirs.
St. Louis at Carolina -- 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
St. Louis became the latest beneficiaries of free points from Houston in last week's blowout road win; the Panthers picked up their second blowout victory too, and are much better than the Rams by DVOA (16.4% versus -15.1%) despite their inferior record. The Rams are unlikely to offer much on offense (4.4% passing, -29.2% rushing) against Carolina's third ranked DVOA defense (-10.6% pass defense, -18.4% run defense). Rushing is the strength of both the Panthers offense (6.2%, seventh) and the Rams defense (-7.4%, 17th), so Carolina's performance may depend on Cam Newton and Steve Smith: St. Louis has been woeful against number one receivers (37.9%, 32nd), allowing 102.1 yards per game. Smith has had a difficult season so far, as his -13.8% DVOA indicates, but probably won't get a better opportunity than this to set that right.
Cincinnati at Detroit -- 1:00 PM ET (CBS)
Upset Watch has covered this game already this week: DVOA considers the Bengals to be better than the Lions, and Calvin Johnson was a hobbled shadow of his usual self against Cleveland. Detroit's offense (8.3%) is more efficient than Cincinnati's (0.4%), but Cincinnati's defense (-11.1%) is much better than Detroit's (0.1%) and excels at shutting down even healthy number one receivers (-28.6%, fourth). With Johnson hobbled, the Lions will continue to channel their offense through Reggie Bush (5.8% rushing, 19.6% receiving) and Joique Bell (-3.6% rushing, 39.3% receiving), but the Bengals are also good against receiving backs (-15.0%, eighth). Detroit may therefore be left hoping for Brandon Pettigrew (-25.9%) to step up against a defense which has had trouble covering tight ends (15.1%, 22nd) -- for all the hype about Joseph Fauria (80.2% DVOA) last week, he's only been thrown nine passes this year compared to Pettigrew's 28.
San Francisco at Tennessee -- 4:05 PM ET (FOX)
Two teams with very similar defensive DVOA profiles face each other in Nashville, as Tennessee's 11th-ranked -5.9% DVOA defense (eighth against the pass, 20th against the run) hosts San Francisco's 10th-ranked -7.4% DVOA defense (sixth against the pass, 18th against the run). By the numbers, San Francisco is slightly better in both defensive phases, markedly better in both offensive phases (3.9%, 12th overall compared to -4.3%, 19th), and significantly better on special teams (0.9% against -7.8%), but the 49ers injury report makes grim reading ahead of this difficult road trip. At least their starting quarterback is healthy; Tennessee is still starting Ryan Fitzpatrick (-16.6%) instead of Jake Locker (7.9% DVOA), which should more than make up for San Francisco's defensive injury concerns.
Houston at Kansas City -- 4:25 PM ET (CBS)
Thrust into the starting lineup, supplanting a posse of displaced (pick-) six-shooters, Texan Case Keenum will look to corral the Houston offense against the number one pass defense by DVOA. The Kansas City rush defense is ranked 27th at 3.1%, so expect an even heavier-than-usual dose of Arian Foster (108 DYAR, third) and Ben Tate (28 DYAR, 15th) despite the former's presence on the injury report. The Houston defense is middle-of-the-pack by DVOA (-2.1%, 15th) despite leading the league in conventional yardage stats; Kansas City's offense is similarly middling, so look for both teams to focus on ball control and ball security. Bonus points for a special teams score, where the Chiefs appear to have a significant advantage -- their 6.8% DVOA is third; Houston's -10.8% is 31st.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh -- 4:25 PM ET (CBS)
The demise of their defense was greatly exaggerated, but Baltimore enters this divisional matchup sitting 31st by DVOA on offense (-19.9%) through the first six weeks -- ahead of Jacksonville, but on a par with the rookie-led Jets, disastrous Giants, and Schianoed (which is like torpedoed, but with an 's') Buccaneers. The loss of Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin only tells part of the story, as the bigger problem is their atrocious running game (-32.5%). Pittsburgh isn't up to its usual standard on either side of the ball (17th on offense at -2.7%, 19th on defense at 1.9%), but by DVOA is still basically an average team with a deceptively poor record. Pittsburgh defeated a team with a similar DVOA profile to Baltimore last weekend -- the Ravens will need to improve on offense to avoid a similar result.
Cleveland at Green Bay -- 4:25 PM ET (CBS)
After a three-game winning streak with Brian Hoyer starting at quarterback, the Brandon Weeden era resumed with a whimper last week in a home loss to the Lions. Weeden's -237 DYAR and -37.5% DVOA both rank 37th, ahead of only Blaine Gabbert among the 38 qualifying passers -- Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers ranks sixth and seventh in those respective categories. Rodgers quarterbacks the league's third-most efficient offense (23.4%), but Green Bay's defense (9.4% DVOA, 25th) is losing linebackers at an alarming rate Even so, the Packers defense is still unlikely to have much trouble handling Cleveland's -14.8% DVOA offense at home. The Brandon Weeden age comparisons come up time and again for the second-year professional, but by Weeden's age Aaron Rodgers ... will be six weeks older than he is now. Against what remains of this already-unimpressive Green Bay pass defense (33.0%, 31st), it really is now or never for Weeden to show that he can be a productive NFL starter.
Denver at Indianapolis -- 8:30 PM ET (NBC)
Denver's offensive line may be one Zane Beadles injury away from evoking a friendly rivalry with Hüsker Dü, but Peyton Manning is still Peyton Manning and their 2.9% adjusted sack rate remains comfortably the best in the league -- as does their offense in general, despite a few notable hiccups against the Jaguars. Indianapolis has a surprisingly effective pass defense (-4.7% DVOA), but Manning's league-leading Broncos (46.7%) will have no qualms about attacking either that or the weak Colts run defense (6.1%, 30th). For the Colts, rushing is their offensive focus and their strength by DVOA (19.4%, second) but stopping the run is Denver's defensive strength (-18.2%, eighth) and even the strongest running game is unlikely to keep up with Denver's league-leading passing attack (80.4%). As a result, how close this game remains will almost certainly be determined by the performance of Andrew Luck (12.8%, eighth) -- Denver's 24.5% pass defense is definitely their biggest weakness.
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