We look back at Atlanta's worst games this year to see what weaknesses New England might exploit. Those weaknesses include pretty much everyone on defense, but is there a secret to stopping the Falcons offense?
22 Sep 2013
by Rivers McCown
There are worse trades than spending a first-round pick on Trent Richardson. Considering that the Colts will essentially get two and 7/8ths years of him at a fairly cheap price -- the Browns are picking up most of his guarantees -- this move doesn't fit the typical structure of a player-for-pick trade, where the team taking on the established player is also taking on a big-dollar salary.
Where I find this trade wanting from the Indianapolis side, instead, relates back to Richardson's old coach Nick Saban. Saban, after facing a constant no-huddle offense in Ole Miss last season, famously uttered the words "Is this what we want football to be?" With Bruce Arians gone, and Pep Hamilton calling the shots for Indianapolis, the offensive philosophy has noticeably shifted away from the deep pass. Fullbacks and extra linemen are running all over the field. T.Y. Hilton, despite easily being the second-best receiver on the team, has been on the field for 57 percent of the snaps through Week 2. Darrius Heyward-Bey? 53 percent.
"We're going to run the football," general manager Ryan Grigson said. My question for Indianapolis is: Why is this really what you want your offense to be? Look at the other side of the ball. Look at your defense, chock-full of new signings, checking in at 24th in VOA through two games after finishing 31st in DVOA in 2012. Losing contain on Terrelle Pryor multiple times when his second read is "run." Watching Vontae Davis continue to be the definition of a scouting star that never seems to perform on the field. This is a defense that is going to create deficits against good offenses, to say the least.
And that's fine -- the 2011 Colts were a rock-bottom team, and you can't rebuild a defense that talent-bereft in two offseasons. They had some defensive superstars in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, but they tended to create a decent (and injury-prone) defense by focusing on small speedsters that nobody else was going after. Now everyone is going after them, Freeney is gone, and Mathis is old. I get that. But did you guys hear about this Peyton Manning Era that happened before you assumed your jobs? They didn't know what a fullback was. Andrew Luck can be Peyton Manning good, and Bruce Arians knew that. Instead, this team's new management seems stuck on doing the exact thing that happened to Luck at Stanford: limiting his upside to run a ball-control offense that strangles turnovers and churns field position. The right way to handle Luck is not to force him to hand the ball off to Richardson 25 times in the name of the same rigid philosophy that puts a fullback on the field instead of Hilton; the right way to handle Luck is to let him dictate the terms of the game.
And yes, there might be turnovers, and yes, the Colts were probably on pace to watch Donald Brown and Ahmad Bradshaw lose productivity, especially after announcing that ace blocking tight end Dwayne Allen and left guard Donald Thomas are done for the season. But the only excuses I can think of for the Colts to be spending a first-round pick on a running back are oft-repeated football truisms that may not actually hold true. That a good running back makes play-action work. (The 2009 Texans, who had a 48.0% DVOA increase while using play-action, despite a dreadful season by Steve Slaton, would disagree.) That a good running game makes a quarterback less likely to get sacked. (The 2009 Packers had the second-best rushing DVOA in the league, and Aaron Rodgers still finished 30th in Adjusted Sack Rate.) That time of possession ultimately matters as far as keeping a bad defense off the field. (Hey, another thing that Peyton Manning spent his career disproving!)
Even if you give the Colts the benefit of the doubt on Richardson's talent -- and I think there is a good case to be made that he is better than his advanced stats, especially in light of his top-five broken tackle total (31) last year -- I think the best thing you can say for them is that this is a down AFC and getting a chance to benefit from the 2014 first-rounder immediately could help them seize a playoff spot. But that doesn't change the fact that the Colts will not be selecting one of the consensus 30 best players in the draft next April, nor does it help fix a dreadful defense that they'll need to rely on Luck to bail out regularly.
For the Browns, this trade is a line of demarcation between the Mike Holmgren Era and the Joe Banner-Mike Lombardi regime. Of the people I've noticed doubting this trade for Cleveland, I think the majority of them are just focused on getting some more haymakers in on the corpse of Holmgren's Browns. That they'll trade the picks for players who aren't as good as Julio Jones, that Richardson was the third overall pick and they're giving up on him too soon, that they could've had Ryan Tannehill and Doug Martin.
The facts are: good running backs aren't worth that much. There are only a few running backs who are worth first-round picks -- most in the back of the first round, likely -- and Richardson doesn't fit their profile yet. He was playing in bad circumstances, but a truly great back tends to overcome bad circumstances. If Richardson is only a pretty good back, then they almost have to take the first-round pick, right? Richardson also has a pretty long, if not serious, injury history. That's enough to scare a lot of general managers out of a long-term commitment to someone.
By making this trade now and eating some of his contract, Cleveland ensures they get a first-round pick for a player who might not ever be worth that again. Hard to argue with that logic. They also weaken their skill positions to the point where they could tank a little bit and shake out very high in this year's draft. Even if they don't get to land Teddy Bridgewater, this could be a very deep class. Tajh Boyd, Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, and Stephen Morris could all possibly take the leap this year and wind up in the first round. And with the Ray Horton-led defense looking strong early, a good young quarterback paired with Josh Gordon and possibly another high-round receiver could be enough to get the Browns back on the fringes of contention in 2014.
Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey came into last Sunday's game with the Texans chirping. "It's a conference game, and we're gonna go out there make sure we put our foot up their ass," he told reporters early in the week. Despite the close loss brought on by the Tennessee's inability to cover DeAndre Hopkins or Andre Johnson, Casey did his part.
I charted the entirety of the first half of this game. Casey played 25 of the 27 defensive snaps, and I have him being doubled (or "combo blocked") nine times and cut three times. A lot of the poorer snaps for him came on the very first drive of the game, when Tennessee decided that they would try to run nickel personnel against the base one-back, two-tight end sets the Texans run with Owen Daniels out wide or in the slot. Casey spent that entire drive in the B-Gap getting combo-blocked or doubled, and the Texans romped down the field, only passing on a play-action fake at the goal line. That was the game within the game for the first half: Tennessee wanted the extra defensive back on the field, and Houston's running game was too good to let it happen.
Here's what I had Casey doing during the first half:
snaps, Week 2, 1H
|Left B-Gap||Right A-Gap||Right B-Gap||Over W. Smith||Over C. Myers||Over B. Brooks||Over D.Newton||Total|
"Successes" is a nebulous term, I'm aware. But when I think he's done a good job penetrating or otherwise disrupting a play, I just marked it down as such. It is totally subjective.
Unless I missed something, Casey recorded zero tackles. Despite that, he had a pretty dramatic impact on this game. He tipped a pass while being double-teamed, and got a pressure on a play where right tackle Derek Newton completely missed an assignment. Casey was stout at the point of attack, and even on the plays when he was well-blocked, he generally got a lot of push.
I have to admit that I came into this game a bit skeptical about film junkies noting that he could be a Geno Atkins-"type" player. He'd never stood out to me like that in the past. But he was causing havoc all over the line -- especially when lined up over Wade Smith, who is to Pro Bowl guards what DeAngelo Hall is to Pro Bowl cornerbacks.
There are certain flash plays when you're watching a defensive linemen that sort of become your embodiment of what you think of when you think of them. After watching this game, Casey's is the play he made with 4:43 in the second quarter. Chris Myers and Smith try to combo Casey, but he splits them and Myers has to dive on him in the backfield to keep the play from blowing up. Casey may not have gotten the whistle, just like the Titans may not have come away with the win, but he showed that he's got a very versatile skill set for a man of his carriage.
by Andrew Potter
Houston (-2.5) at Baltimore -– 1:00 PM ET (CBS)
The current champions have had little to shout about so far this season -- crushed by the Broncos on opening night, the Ravens were 6-0 down to the Browns at half time last week before pulling out a 14-6 victory. Houston doesn't have Peyton Manning, but in rookie DeAndre Hopkins (14th in DYAR, 21st in DVOA) they have a potential star receiver to complement Andre Johnson in an offense considerably more dangerous than Cleveland's. Baltimore has a suddenly struggling defense (12.7% VOA, 27th), a very expensive quarterback, two talented running backs toiling behind a struggling offensive line (3.04 ALY, 24th in power success, 30th in stuffs), and only one receiver who's even verged on being consistently reliable (Torrey Smith has 342 career YAR, but was basically average last year by DVOA and has yet to have a catch rate above 55 percent). In this year's AFC, that's still enough to make them playoff contenders.
NY Giants (+1) at Carolina –- 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
Carolina Rivera'd their way to another narrow loss last weekend, losing almost their entire secondary in the process. Eli Manning might remind Panthers fans of their own former quarterback, having Delhommed his way through the Giants' opening two games, but leading the league in interceptions depends on the other team having players to catch them. Despite the interceptions, the second-least-efficient running game in the league (-69.7% VOA) remains the larger concern for many in New York –- and is the one area of the Giants offense the Panthers shouldn't need cornerbacks to stop.
Detroit (+1) at Washington -– 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
Detroit's surprisingly ineffective defensive line (19th in ASR, 100% success rate, 27th in stuff rate) will look to get on track against a Washington offensive line which has struggled with both run and pass blocking despite their middle-of-the-pack advanced stats. Meanwhile, the Lions' potent passing attack (+15.4% VOA) faces a defense which is by far the worst in the league whether by yards, points allowed, or their terrible -51.3% VOA. It still feels strange to live in a world where the Lions are justified road favorites, but that's what we appear to have here.
San Diego (+3) at Tennessee –- 1:00 PM ET (CBS)
San Diego's resurgent passing game (62.1%, 3rd) must compensate for an overmatched defense (29.8%, 30th) if Weeks 1 and 2 are any indication. Houston and Philadelphia are no slouches on offense themselves, but it's trouble if San Diego's defense struggles against the Tennessee attack (-17.2%, 26th). Tennessee has so far beaten a Pittsburgh team which had tight end Kelvin Beachum playing center, and taken Houston to overtime partly due to three missed field goals. They're basically an average team (3.2% VOA) who can't rely on those breaks every week.
Arizona (+8) at New Orleans –- 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
Rumors of Arizona's passing resurgence are greatly exaggerated, as evidenced by their middle-of-the-pack 4.6% VOA, but compared to their previous awfulness mediocrity brings blessed relief. The Saints have had their own struggles, particularly running the ball (-31.4% VOA, 28th in power success, 22 percent stuff rate), but with a -12.3% VOA pointing towards an improving defense, even their worst offensive day is likely to be more than Carson Palmer can match.
Tampa Bay (+9) at New England -– 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
Patriots fans spent most of Week 2 having Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel flashbacks. Buccaneers fans will be right there in 2006 with them, as Josh Freeman's -102 DYAR channels the ghost of Chris Simms' past. Two so-far so-good defenses (4th and 5th by VOA) face underachieving offenses (27th and 29th); winner is the first to return to 2010. Or score 10.
Green Bay (-2.5) at Cincinnati -– 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
The Bengals (11.8% VOA, 10th) look like the class of the AFC North -- a thought that strikes fear into the hearts of their own fans. Giovani Bernard has been terrific so far -- ranking second in rushing VOA and 3rd in receiving -- and the rookie rightly took the plaudits in Week 2, but A.J. Green remains their strongest offensive weapon despite his mediocre efficiency stats (-5.3% VOA, 16 YAR, 56% catch rate). Green Bay looks almost exactly like they did last year, with Week 2's startling appearance of a running game (James Starks is second in both rushing VOA and YAR for backs with at least 15 carries) treated warily given the opponent at the time. Cincinnati has a better run defense (-26.7%) than pass defense (17.5%); so regardless of whether Green Bay's second-rated pass offense (87.5%) or 32nd-rated pass defense (66.2%) prevails in Ohio, Starks' lofty perch in the FO statistics will almost certainly be temporary.
St. Louis (+4) at Dallas -– 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
St. Louis gave a spirited second-half showing in Atlanta without ever having a chance to tie the game, whereas the Cowboys got their own fightback all wrong. An improving offensive line in Dallas will be tested by a strong St, Louis defensive line, but if they can keep Tony Romo upright he'll definitely have opportunities against the St. Louis secondary (32.3% pass defense VOA). Questions over Daryl Richardson's health may add to the Rams' woes against the Cowboys' fifth-rated run defense (-34.2%); the Rams' surprising ninth-ranked passing game (28.4%) may have greater opportunity.
Cleveland (+5.5) at Minnesota -– 1:00 PM ET (CBS)
Brian Hoyer is set to start for the Browns in Minnesota, but if the Cleveland offensive line doesn't improve on its 10.7% adjusted sack rate it won't matter who's being pummeled behind them. The Vikings, meanwhile, played the game backwards against Chicago, scoring almost half of their points on returns while tossing the Bears a pick-six of their own. Defensive scoring is unsustainable except, it seems, for the Bears. The loss of Trent Richardson (-24.4% VOA, -6 YAR) may hurt the Browns less than many people think, but all they need to do is look over at the Vikings (-20.2% rush VOA) and see what a running back as your sole star on offense will get you in the modern game.
Atlanta (+1.5) at Miami -– 4:05 PM ET (FOX)
Miami was the last team other than New England to win the AFC East; they've started this season like they mean to be the next as well. An efficient passing game (32.5% VOA) and an effective pass defense (-27.5%) have provided a 2-0 start on the road, but even in Miami the Falcons should be a stiffer test than the Browns or Colts. The Falcons retain their familiar efficiency, as their +27.6% VOA passing game continues to compensate for a running game which hasn't been above average since 2006, but their already-struggling defense (+11.3%) lost several key players to injury this week. How well they compensate will determine the difficulty for the Dolphins.
Buffalo (+1) at NY Jets –- 4:25 PM ET (CBS)
Even with a new starting quarterback, the Jets are still the Rex Ryan Jets. That means a very good defense (-26.2%, 3rd), but a continual struggle on offense (-39.4%, 31st). The Bills have a surprisingly good passing game (32.1%, 7th) and will be pleased with the start to EJ Manuel's career -- remarkably, the Bills rookie ranks eighth in both VOA and YAR – but this Jets defense will be the young quarterback's biggest test so far.
Indianapolis (+10.5) at San Francisco –- 4:25 PM ET (CBS)
With Dwayne Allen lost for the year and Trent Richardson new to the team, Andrew Luck will be heartened by suggestions that the 49ers defense is struggling (13.8% VOA, 29th) despite them keeping Seattle in check for most of Sunday night. Ahmad Bradshaw has been quietly efficient as both a runner (24.3% VOA) and a receiver (12.1%), and Reggie Wayne remains a reliable target (25.3% VOA, 81 percent catch rate), but Luck still needs one of Coby Fleener (-3.1%), T.Y. Hilton (-8.5%) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (-25.4%) to emerge as a viable second option. San Francisco's offense was completely shut down in Week 2, dropping from third to 22nd by VOA, but the Colts' bottom-half defense (9.7%, 24th) -- their poor run defense (15.8%) in particular -- should give the 49ers plenty of opportunity to get back on track.
Jacksonville (+19.5) at Seattle -– 4:25 PM ET (CBS)
Seattle has a chance to set the post-merger record for fewest points allowed through a team's first three games if they can shut out a Jacksonville offense that's produced only nine points so far in amassing an horrific -67.6% VOA. With the best performer on their offense hurt -- running back Maurice Jones-Drew merely has a -7.9% VOA -- starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert (he of the -245 YAR in week TWO) still injured, and Chad Henne still Chad Henne (-14.3% VOA, a mere -9 YAR), the chance of a team scoring negative points may never be higher. Russell Wilson has struggled early in both of his games this year, but rebounded in the second halves to sit 12th by FO's stats; this week he might not need to attempt a pass after the first quarter. Against Seattle's league-leading pass defense (-57.5%), the Jaguars might not complete one.
Chicago (-2.5) at Pittsburgh -– 8:30 PM ET (NBC)
A year ago, this game would have represented two teams with remarkably similar situations: talented but battered quarterbacks stuck behind terrible offensive lines, winning by relying on well-coached defenses with aging stars. Now, they could hardly be more different: Chicago has a new coach, a much-improved offense (13.6% VOA, good for seventh in the league) featuring a heavily upgraded line (third in Adjusted Sack Rate, allowing sacks at a quarter of last year's rate), and a defense that continues to do well (-7.1%, still best in the NFC North) after losing its iconic but aging star linebacker. Pittsburgh had, if anything, gone backward even before the loss of center Maurkice Pouncey: their defense is so far average (1.5%, 16th), their pass offense has struggled (2.9%, 23rd), and their run offense has been downright terrible (-77.6% VOA, comfortably worst in the league). Chicago is a tough opponent even with a fully functional offense; Todd Haley's offense has so far been anything but functional.
6 comments, Last at 29 Sep 2013, 10:55am by Jocuri Gratuite