Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
12 Oct 2006
by Bill Barnwell & Ian Dembsky
Ian: You have to hand it to the Colts. They're not dominating anywhere near the level people have been expecting, but they're also finding a way to get it done in close games. The way I see it, there are two likely reasons they keep winning by such small margins. First, other teams have learned that to keep things close against Indy, you just need to essentially go with the Madden "Dime -- Double Wide" defense. Basically, sell out on stopping the wide receivers and force the Colts to run the ball. Sure, they can run for five to seven yards a pop, but it keeps things in check, and the fewer big plays on early downs, the more third downs where your defense has a chance to make a stop.
Bill: Whenever I call that, the computer audibles to a one-WR offense and my safety ends up covering a pixel two yards in front of him while a shifted-to-tight-end Santana Moss runs a 70-yard fly pattern by him. So, basically, my Madden Giants turn into the real ones. But I digress.
Ian: In 2004, the Colts faced 10.3 third downs per game. In 2005, it was 11.7 per game. This season, through five games, they've faced 13.0 third downs per game. More third downs means more missed third downs, and more punts.
As for the other reason their wins are so close, it's conspiracy theory time! The Colts are playing poorly on purpose. Watching Peyton Manning, it's clear to see that when he's in a groove he's incredible, but when things aren't going well it's hard for him to maintain his composure. In an effort to overcome this problem, which has troubled the Colts in playoffs past, the Colts are sandbagging it for the first three quarters of every game. Then, the fourth quarter is when they're finally trying hardest. Constantly playing games like this will better prepare them for tough tests in the playoffs, and hopefully get them over the hump and into the Super Bowl. Is this theory likely to be true? Heck no. But why not, as long as they keep winning. How else to explain what happened against Tennessee?
Bill: They spent the first three quarters filming a DirecTV commercial in the huddle instead of calling plays? Film junkie Manning is trying to reverse engineer the entire Redskins playbook for fun? He keeps calling for Edgerrin James in some weird blitz-pickup equivalent of a booty call? Manning's been sacked seven times in five weeks; he'd gone down once at this point in 2005. That's probably throwing him off some. That being said, the Colts can't continue to play this way and win football games. After the bye week, they're home against Washington, at Denver, and then at New England. Playing the way they have against the Jets and the Titans the last two weeks is going to end poorly for them.
As for the other unbeaten team, how can anyone say that any team is better than Chicago? Only Minnesota's come remotely close to beating them this season, and fate was kind enough to hand the Bears an Arizona team with an injured Larry Fitzgerald and a still-learning-the-playbook Matt Leinart this week. Arizona is basically the really poor man's Seattle, and, well, you saw what Chicago did to the Seahawks. Chicago's bye is followed by home games versus San Francisco and Miami, and they could easily be 10-0 heading into New England on November 26th.
Ian: No doubt, they are the best team in football right now. Common sense and DVOA agree. When I was predicting a division title for Minnesota, it was based on the Vikings having the most consistent quarterback play in the division. Boy, was I wrong. Rex Grossman, isn't just on fire, he's not just in The Zone, he's unconscious. He hits bombs as if he were throwing a three-yard dump-off. The offense is igniting the defense, and the defense in turn is igniting the offense. Is it too early to think they could go 16-0? Well, absolutely. But it's time to start thinking that it's almost time to start thinking about it. If that makes sense.
One thing that definitely doesn't make sense is the performance of The Big Three in fantasy football. What happened? When the season began, it was pretty clear that Larry Johnson, Shaun Alexander, or LaDainian Tomlinson could carry a fantasy team on their own. As the season's gone on, not only is that not the case, but only Larry Johnson has been really good. Tomlinson seems to be giving up some of his playing time to Michael Turner, and Shaun Alexander wasn't running very well before his foot injury. In my 12-team auction league, the teams that spent over $80 on those three are in third, eleventh and twelfth place (the third-place team has Alexander but has been carried by the rejuvenated performances of Terry Glenn, Keyshawn Johnson, and Amani Toomer). What can we learn from this? In auction leagues, the prices of top running backs have been skyrocketing for years. Maybe people will learn that with the way the NFL changes from season to season, and the way teams like to use other backs to rest their stars, it's time to stop investing ridiculous amounts in one player and build a balanced team.
One running back that's seriously looking like the real deal is Tatum Bell. This guy is looking better and better every week; he single-handedly carried the Broncos offense on Monday night against a tough Ravens defense. Eating yards up in large chunks, juking defenders, breaking tackles -- Tatum did it all. With the game virtually on the line, he even ran over Ray Lewis, taking him for an eight-yard ride during a 12-yard run on third-and-10, leading to the beautifully called touchdown pass to Rod Smith to seal the deal. He was the only player that looked remotely strong in terrible conditions, and you'd better believe he's gonna look extremely good as the season progresses.
Elsewhere around the league, the Jets were stopped stone-cold by the Jaguars. Jacksonville illustrated exactly what it takes to stop the Jets offense: contain the short passes. The Jets are very dependent on completing short passes and getting good yards after the catch. The running game has been almost non-existent (aside from garbage-time against the Jaguars), and long completions usually are actually short completions with long runs. Defend the short pass like the Jaguars did this past week, and the Jets will have a hard time moving the ball. Rookie Leon Washington will have to prove he's better than someone who just piles up yards in garbage time, or Chad Pennington's going to have to be more consistent airing out the deep ball, or the Jets will be in trouble.
The offense that won't be stopped belongs to the Philadelphia Eagles. Donovan McNabb has become a one-man wrecking crew. He's been reading the field beautifully. If the defense makes the slightest mistake on a receiver, McNabb notices and hits the open target. The result is that receivers like Reggie Brown, Donte Stallworth, Greg Lewis, and even Hank Baskett are looking great simply by running the called routes and waiting for the slightest mistake in coverage, when Donovan will quickly hit them for a big gain. Strangely, McNabb continues to make a handful of terrible throws a game, be it short-hops or overthrows. He's so good at scanning the field, however, that he can get away with it. Let's give a lot of credit to their offensive line as well -- the time he's had in the pocket has been a huge part of his success.
Bill: It was a good week to be a loser. With three negative score performances strengthening Loser League team performances, and Cedric Benson enjoying the first two touchdowns of his NFL career, The Landon Donovan Experience might spend Week 6 feeling like it had graduated to its namesake's German hangover. This was a week to silence those players who were appearing to outperform their expectations through the first four weeks, and, well, Kevin Jones was pretty bad too.
QB: This week's Loser of the Week is Chad Pennington, who contributed to Loser League teams across the land with a whopping -2. Chad went 10-of-17, but gained only 71 yards through the air and threw three interceptions. His 17 rushing yards were nice, but didn't keep him out of the rarefied air of negative-point performances in 2006. Continuing the trend of failing "revitalized" quarterbacks was Pennington's AFC East buddy J.P. Losman, who played a lot like the Losman of old in throwing three interceptions and only throwing for 115 yards. He was able to muster up a meager 3 thanks to a garbage-time touchdown throw to Lee Evans.
RB: Running backs were no exception to the rule this week. The week's low scorer was Laurence Maroney, who couldn't find holes in Miami's defense (more on that later) and earned a 3. Maroney barely nudged out the aforementionedKevin Jones, whose bandwagon broke an axle and could only kill 4 pounds worth of meat this week. Jones' performance was made even sadder by the fact that Jon Kitna matched his rushing output (eight yards) with one carry, while Jones required 10 -- and Kitna even scored a touchdown.
WR: Two steps forward, one step back for the Patriots passing attack. After a huge performance in Week 4, Doug Gabriel came crashing down to earth with a big ol' 0. Miami was fifth in the league against their opponents' #1 WR before the Patriots game, a ranking that's only going to improve after that performance. Muhsin Muhammad picked up ten yards receiving while his team was scoring 40 points, while Laveranues Coles had 19 yards while his team couldn't put any on the board. Both of them were equally woeful in Loser League, though. A 1 is a 1 is a 1.
K: Two kickers tried real hard to be the biggest loser of the week in Week 5. Maybe they had a bet running on it. Unfortunately for them, they could not foresee that the Jets would leave Chad Pennington in to throw three picks. Instead, Ryan Longwell and Olindo Mare were forced to settle for a second-place tie, each taking a different path to their -1: Longwell hitting two field goals but missing an extra point, Mare simply hitting one out of three field goals on the day.
|Check out the Football Outsiders comics archive and Jason's wacky Gil Thorp blog.|
Brett Favre's clutch fumble is certainly noteworthy here, as are Steve McNair's terrible interceptions. This week, however, the Keep Choppin' Wood award goes to Dennis Northcutt. Not for any reason you'll see in the statistics; actually it'll look like Charlie Frye's fault. But Frye threw a perfect pass in the flat to Northcutt that hit him square in the chest, bounced up in the air, and was grabbed by Richard Marshall and returned easily for a crucial touchdown in their low-scoring contest. The pass didn't take him by surprise, either; he was looking right at it, and simply gave away seven points. It's plays like this that certainly deserve a Keep Choppin' Wood award.
Bill: 2-0-1 last week, 9-5-1 overall)
To ignore my warnings, Best Bettors, could be your folly. I was taken to task for saying the Dolphins would play the Patriots close in Week 5, and was rewarded with a push even after the Dolphins changed quarterbacks late in the week. Meanwhile, I said the Jaguars would chalk up 210 yards rushing en route to a double-digit win over the Jets; they got to 181 and ran up 41 points on a Jets team that, in fact, regressed right to the mean -- they now have 103 PF and 132 PA, much more in line with how they've really performed (-3.4% Team DVOA as of Week 4) than their numbers before the Jags game. I'll be the first to admit I'm wrong (see the Eagles game a couple of weeks ago), but I was pretty right last week.
This is a bet for DAVE and the team I saw dismantle the Giants, not the one that was summarily taken apart by the Bears. Which one of those teams does St. Louis have more in common with? Right. This would be my Sex Panther Lock of the Week if I was calling it that. Which I'm not. Yet. I'm not sure how much it would take for me to sell out, but I would sure love some corporate sponsorship. Besides, are you going to want to associate your product with Ian's betting? Again, right.
I will continue to bet against the Ravens, even after they finally came through for me and lost last week to Denver. Watch me ride their opponents all the way, people. In all seriousness, Carolina's going to be able to get to Steve McNair, and all the gritty-scrap-ironness he has in the fourth quarter of games isn't going to bring them back. Carolina with an outright win to save their season.
On one hand, Pittsburgh has been struggling. Ben Roethlisberger's been playing like a rookie two seasons too late. Hines Ward hasn't been at 100 percent all season. On the other hand, Larry Johnson might be out, Damon Huard is starting on the road, and teams have averaged 16 points per game at Heinz over the last couple of seasons. Call me crazy, but I think the Steelers can score 23 in a game that, much like the Panthers, they'll win to save their season.
Ian: (1-1-1 last week, 5-7-2 overall)
Just a 1-1-1 week last week, mainly because LJ had to leave injured, and when I wrote last week, "The Washington offense is clicking, and there's no real reason to think the Giants will slow them down," I didn't think the Giants would do the smart thing and play plain, straight-up defense. Everyone loves to blitz like crazy, and the Redskins eat teams alive for doing it by dumping off quickly to immensely talented receivers. The Giants stayed at home and contained the 'Skins nicely. On to the picks.
This is fun; let's see how high the lines against Oakland can go before the season ends. I'm willing to lay the 15 here. The Denver defense has been excellent, and even average defenses are eating the Oakland quarterbacks alive. While Randy Moss fantasy owners pray for a trade that will spark his efforts, I'm riding the anti-Oakland train.
Laying 11 points on the road is tough, but this is about the best spot to do it in. Arizona may be riled up in their home stadium on Monday night, but anyone who thinks Matt Leinart has a chance against the Chicago defense is sadly mistaken -- with or without his usual top target.
The Titans had a great formula for success against the Colts last week: Slow the game down, pound the run, and contain the passing game of the opponent. If they can continue to perform well in this regard, I'm happy to take double-digit points against any team in the league other than Chicago.
101 comments, Last at 17 Oct 2006, 4:39am by Sid