Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
16 Jan 2004
by Al Bogdan and Ian Dembsky
Welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where we discuss all things football. We'll have commentary on the latest NFL stories, as well as our Best Bets of the week and updates to our Survivor League (check the Scramble archives for full details). Al's a long-time Giants fan originally from Long Island, and Ian is a long-time Tampa Bay fan originally from Jersey, and we're both NFL and fantasy sports addicts. Look for Scramble updated every Thursday afternoon during the NFL season, and feel free to email us with any thoughts at scramble @ footballoutsiders.com.
Al: What a weekend! I'm still in shock that all four underdogs covered. Now I'm pissed I didn't pick all the dogs like I wanted to at the beginning of the week. I'll start with the KC/Indy game. That was easily the worst pair of defensive performances that I've ever seen. Neither team could stop the other from scoring. The Colts lucked out that the Chiefs missed a field goal and that Priest Holmes fumbled the ball away after a 48-yard run. If the Chiefs don't shoot themselves in their collective feet, KC is going to New England this weekend. Greg Robinson took the fall for the Chiefs loss by making the classy move and resigning. But I can't really blame him all that much. The way Peyton Manning has been playing, I'm not sure anyone could have stopped him. The Chiefs needed someone to step up and make just one defensive play -- a stop, an interception, a forced fumble, a tipped pass, anything! None of the Chiefs could do it.
Dick Vermeil should be getting just as much heat, if not more than Robinson, for not going for the onside kick with 4:22 to go. With the way both defenses were playing, the last offense with the ball was going to win that game. You have to try to get the ball in your offense's hands at that point. Worse case scenario is that the Colts get the ball on the 45 instead of the 25. If you think your defense can hold the Colts from the 25 so that you can get the ball back with enough time on the clock to score, why can't your defense stop the Colts from the 45?
Ian: Absolutely right. There's no reason the Chiefs shouldn't have kicked onsides there; at some point you have to admit that you're not going to stop the Colts offense. What's with them, anyways? They haven't punted yet this playoffs. Let me say that again- They haven't punted once so far this entire playoffs. Their only non-scoring drives have been one Edgerrin James fumble, and twice when it didn't matter against Kansas City. When Denver beat up on Indy in Week 16, we talked about how Peyton's biggest problem that game was a refusal to spread the ball around. Apparently he reads this column, because spread it around is exactly what he's been doing. Teams are doing their best to take Marvin Harrison out of the game, but that's opened things up for Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley, who have an amazing 19 catches for 327 yards and 5 touchdowns between them in two games. That's over 17 yards a catch. Oh, and that Harrison guy? 13 catches for 231 yards and 2 touchdowns himself. Two seasons ago, Jon Gruden took over a Tampa team noted for it's defense; not known as his specialty. He gave them just enough offense to win the Super Bowl. Now Tony Dungy has taken his team that's clearly an offensive-minded squad, and seems to be giving them just enough defense to advance in the playoffs. Will they win it all? Hard to say at this point, but New England's gonna have to play some pretty amazing defense to slow this team down.
Al: I still don't know who I'm going to pick in that game. I keep thinking the Colts will fold, but no one has been able to stop their offense in the playoffs. I mean, Brandon Stokley!?!? All he needs is ten yards against New England and he'll have as many receiving yards in the playoffs has he had over the entire regular season.
But how can I pick against New England? They just keep finding a way to win. Were they impressive against Tennessee on Sunday? Not to me. The running game was nothing special. The passing attack was disappointing. I can go my entire life without seeing yet another New England quick pass to a wide receiver who gets immediately tackled at the line. Defensively, the Patriots were solid, but did not look unbeatable. If Tennessee was less stubborn and gave Chris Brown a few more of Eddie George's carries, maybe the Titans get into field goal position one more time and the game goes into overtime. The Patriots looked like a vulnerable team but managed a victory over a very good opponent.
Ian: Yeah, New England won but didn't really look all that impressive. Of course, they often don't look all that impressive; they just keep on winnin'. One big advantage the Pats have over the Colts is the home field advantage -- the latest weather forecast says there's gonna be snow in New England on Sunday. The Colts win thanks to a precision passing game, but it's a lot harder to pull that off in the New England snow in January. Over in the NFC were a pair of overtime contests, highlighted mainly by chickens**t coaching decisions. Take the Rams game for starters. They're down three points at the two minute warning, and they have the ball at the Carolina 38. That's plenty of time to try and move in for the kill. But no, after one gain moves the ball down to the 25-yard line, Coach Martz elects to play conservative, let the clock run down, and kick a field goal and head into overtime.
What was he thinking?? As far as I can tell, there was only one thought running through his mind --
Bulger's been interception-prone, so let's make sure we don't turn it over before overtime. Hello, Mr. Martz! Once the game goes into overtime, guess who your quarterback's gonna be?!? It's not like you can simply take Bulger out of the game. It was completely moronic for them to play for the tie in regulation. As it turns out, and just as you predicted, Al, Bulger went on to throw one interception too many, and the Panthers took the game in double-overtime.
Al: If you're not confident that Bulger won't make a mistake with thirty seconds left then give Marshall Faulk two chances to run the ball into the end zone. The Panthers had done a good job of containing Faulk all day, but he is still Marshall Faulk. If there's anyone that Martz should have confidence in to get some yards with thirty seconds left in regulation and not make a mistake it's Marshall Faulk.
The story of that game for me was the dominance of the Carolina offensive line. The Panthers were running at will on the Rams. DeShaun Foster was the worst RB in the league this year with a minimum of 75 rushes according to both DPAR and DVOA. Yet, he was able to gain 95 yards, most of it coming after Stephen Davis left the game with an injury. After Davis left the game, Foster had 19 carries during regulation. Foster gained five yards or more on 11 of those carries. The Rams couldn't lay a hand on Foster until he was three to four yards past the line of scrimmage.
All year I've been calling on the Panthers to run the ball 30-40 times. This week they ran 37 times for 216 yards. Jake Delhomme had less than 30 pass attempts and was very effective. Jake has thrown less than 30 passes in both playoff games and has a playoff QB rating of 100.8. I don't know, the Panthers look like they match up pretty well against Philly this week.
Ian: The Panthers will be traveling to Philly thanks to another chickens**t call, this one at the hands of Mike Sherman. You all probably saw the game and know what I'm talking about. In the 4th quarter, 2:30 to go in the game, it's 4th-and-1 for the Packers at Philly's 41-yard line, and rather than pound the ball for the first they tried to draw Philly offside and settle for a punt. Since I was rooting for Philly to win, I was really hoping for Green Bay to be that stupid, and they were. What made them think they couldn't get one measly yard against the Eagles? They have the starter for the Pro Bowl at running back, and an offensive line that's been playing phenomenally. Watching them block defensive tackles, then break off that tackle and block a linebacker as well has been truly impressive. Ok, so Philly had stopped them earlier on a 4th-and-1 at the goal line. But here's where I'd like to once again point out that Green Bay was on Philly's 41 yard-line. The punt went into the endzone for a touchback, and the Eagles got the ball at their 20 yard-line. Those 20 yards of field position were not worth giving up a shot at going for it on fourth. And it's not like 2 minutes and 30 seconds isn't enough time for McNabb to drive the ball 50 yards, which was proven to be true. I guess Green Bay felt it slipping away at that point, as they decided to play a 27 yard prevent defense on 4th-and-26, and Brett Favre decided to lob the ball deep to an Eagles DB in overtime, when he had no idea what was actually happening downfield. It should never have come to that; Green Bay should have won this game in regulation.
Al: 4th-and-26! When Mike Sherman is fired after next season and Brett Favre finishes his career with only one Super Bowl ring, we'll hear again about 4th-and-26. I don't disagree with the decision to punt on 4th-and-1 from the Eagles 41, however. If the Packers get stopped, Philly only needs to drive 30 yards in two minutes and thirty seconds to have a chance at the tie. Green Bay isn't in the clear even if they make first down, unless they end up scoring a TD on the drive or manage another first down. The biggest mistake on that play was Josh Bidwell not punting the ball out of bounds inside the ten yard line. Either he got too cute with the kick and tried to place it inside of the five for the Packers to down or he just kicked poorly. If he kicks the ball out of bounds at the five the Packers have a much better chance at playing in the NFC Championship Game. Of course, if Brett Favre looked downfield before throwing a 40 yard pass, the Packers would have had a better chance at playing at Carolina this week.
Al: Here's a question we missed when we were on vacation. Remember, you can email us any questions or comments at scramble @ footballoutsiders.com. This week's email comes from Jacob in Cambridge, MA.
"This time of year you always hear stuff about how smaller defenses are tired out and beat upÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ Has anyone ever done any kind of study on this? Do smaller front sevens actually fade at the end of the season? I guess you'd want to restrict it to defenses that were playing more or less the same guys over the course of the year, and look at how their performance against the rush changed over the course of the season."
Al: Thanks for the email, Jacob! As far as I know, no studies have been done on this, but I'm sure Aaron will try to look at it now that you've brought it up. It seems like an idea that wouldn't make a lot of sense, though. You would think that your smaller defensive players would be in better condition than your bigger players and would be less likely to be tired at the end of the season. A case in point this year would be the Patriots. Other than Ted Washington, who missed some games this year because of injury, you wouldn't think of New England as having a big defense. They certainly haven't tired out as the season has gone on.
Ian: It's an interesting debate topic, but personally I don't think it makes much of a difference. There's way too much variance -- how much did one defense stay on the field as opposed to the other? Did they face opponents that rushed a lot, or threw the ball downfield a lot? And of course, how much stamina a person has isn't necessarily related to his size; I bet there are some big guys in the NFL that can run for longer than a whole lot of the smaller-types.
Back to your point on Green Bay's punter -- I've been wondering all season, why is it that punters in position to pin a team deep always try to get lucky and land the ball near the 1 and hope for a good bounce? What happened to the lost art of the coffin corner? I would think it's easier to kick a ball straight for the sideline and not have to worry about where it bounces. I just conducted an experiment in our office -- I tried to kick a football towards a sideline 10 times, and tried to kick it near the wall 10 times without it hitting the wall. I was successful getting out of bounds near the "end zone" 9 out of 10 times. I was successful not hitting the wall 3 out of 10 times. Granted, this is a horribly stupid experiment, but still it pathetically attempts to demonstrate the point that it's much easier to kick out of bounds near the five yard line than it is to get it to stop there in-bounds.
Al: I'm leading the Scramble for the Ball Best Bet Playoff Race 6-5 (4 for Best Bet, 3 for Very Good, 2 for Hunch, 1 for I Guess) since I put one of my upset picks as my Best Bet. There are only two games this week, so we'll also pick the over/under for each game.
Best Bet: Carolina/Philadelphia OVER 36.5: This number is way too low. If the final score is 20-17 I win this bet. Carolina has scored 20 points or more in their last 5 games. Philadelphia has been under 20 points only once since Halloween. The two teams met in December and scored a combined 41 points. The current forecast for Sunday night in Philadelphia is a low of 21 degrees. That really shouldn't hinder either team's ability to score. You don't need to be the Russian girl with X-Ray vision to see the over is a great bet.
Very Good Bet: New England/Indianapolis UNDER 44: How many times this season have the Patriots and their opponents combined to score over 44 points in Foxboro? I'll give you a hint -- just once. The only game in Foxboro this year to have more than 44 points scored was New England's 38-30 victory over Tennessee. That game was played during a perfect autumn New England Sunday -- sunny, winds under 10 mph and a game time temperature of 51 degrees. This week? Weather.com is predicting snow and below freezing temperatures. I don't think the weather will be an enormous factor in this game, but it should be enough to keep scoring below 44 points.
Just a Hunch: Carolina +4 over Philadelphia. I've been driving the Carolina bandwagon since we picked over/unders for season wins back in June. I'm not going to jump off the wagon train now. I think this is a great matchup for the Panthers, better than playing the Packers would have been. As we've learned, the Eagles can't stop the run. Stephen Davis is going to play on Sunday unless he actually can't walk onto the field. If he doesn't, conventional wisdom is that DeShaun Foster will get the majority of the carries for Carolina, which as Aaron points out might not be the best idea for the Panthers. What Aaron left out of his analysis, though, is Carolina's other running backs. If DeShaun struggles early, I could see the Panthers going to one of their fullbacks -- Brad Hoover or Nick Goings -- who could have more success running on grass. Let's not forget that the Eagles were a 4th-and-26 away from not making it to this game and are missing their best running back. Even if the Eagles win, this game will be tight to the end. Jake Delhomme has led eight comeback drives in the fourth quarter this year. Normally I look at this as a negative stat -- you can't have a comeback drive if your team is ahead at the end of a game -- but it shows that the Panthers at least keep things close if they're losing.
I Guess I Have to Pick This Game: New England -3 over Indianapolis: This is almost a perfect line. I think the Patriots will pull this one out, but probably only by a field goal. Aaron was dead on in his analysis, writing that Brandon Stokley could be the key to this game for the Colts. New England really hasn't played any teams with three legitimate WR threats this year with the possible exception of Tennessee. The Colts should be able to score some points on New England when they have the ball. The problem is New England is going to do its best to see that they won't have the ball all that much. Even without a running game to speak of, New England was fifth in the AFC in average time of possession (four seconds behind the Colts in third place). Unlike the NFC game, home field should be a major factor here. New England hasn't lost at home since last season and Peyton Manning has never won a game in Foxboro. I hate this line, but I have to go with the team that I think will win the game.
Ian: Unfortunately for me, I'm trailing you by one, because I pretty much agree with you on everything but need to try and make a move. Well, here goes...
Best Bet: Carolina +4 over Philly: People were touting Green Bay as the Team of Destiny this season, but how about your 2004 Super Bowl Champion Carolina Panthers? These guys have won so many ridiculous ways this season -- that Rams game was just typical. Here come the Panthers.
Pretty Good Bet: New England/Indianapolis OVER 44: That does seem like an awful lot of points, when the Pats play great D at home and it could be snowing. But I see one of two things happening in this game: 1. The Pats shred the Colts early, and it becomes a shootout as Indy plays catch-up or 2. The Colts shred the Pats early, and it becomes a shootout as New England plays catchup. Both teams have tremendous wide receivers, including tight ends who can catch the ball and running backs that can make plays out of the backfield (no not Antowain Smith; Kevin Faulk of course). If there are proposition bets out there for passing yards for each quarterback, I'd take the over on both of those as well.
Just a Hunch: Indy +3 over New England: This isn't the fan in me picking the game, because I want the Pats to confuse the hell out of Peyton and move onto the Super Bowl with ease. But the Colts have been too damn good for me to pick against them right now, especially when they're getting three points. Maybe the game will be a push and it won't matter that I took the Colts, but it's likely to be close, so I'll take the three and run.
I Guess I Have To Pick This Game: Carolina/Philly OVER 36.5: I don't have a clue with regards to this bet, but it does seem that both teams tend to light it up in the second half. I'll agree with you on the over.