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?
11 Aug 2010
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: So, it's time for another season of football, which means it's also time for another season of Scramble for the Ball.
Mike: Which means another season of playing that fool's game, preseason over/unders!
Tom: The motto of Scramble for the Ball is "all predictions wrong or your money back!" Now that Mike and I are writing Scramble for the second straight season, we thought we'd start by breaking tradition. Rather than two insanely long, very late preseason columns, we're writing more preseason columns, each of semi-reasonable length and more or less on time.
Mike: Truly, we are mad with power. Also, keep in mind that's a Mike and Tom definition of "semi-reasonable." Let's not get too carried away.
Tom: We are both still attorneys, after all. Rather than breaking up over/unders by alphabetical order, we're going division by division -- part of my clever ploy to avoid unintentionally picking every team in a decision to go under, as I did with the NFC South last season. Granted, every team but New Orelans did go under, but it still looked bad. I should also note that, except as mentioned to the contrary, there is no actual money on any of these predictions.
Mike: On that note, do not complain about consistency, and don't try to add up over and unders in some bizarre attempt to prove to the greater Intertrucks that FO doesn't understand how schedules work. We are pronouncing very vague judgments on these teams. We don't have a giant whiteboard where we meticulously plotted out who wins which game.
Actually, that would be pretty awesome. Note to self: Make Aaron get a whiteboard for the FO Cave.
Tom: Now, now, Mike, race neutral. Call it a "dry erase board."
Mike: Why you gotta be racist against wet erase boards? I'm not sure I can work with you anymore ...
Tom: I'd tell you about me and the tragic story of my experience with a wet erase board, but the wounds are still too raw.
Mike: So that's the long and short of it: We're going to go through and pick over/under wins for each team in the league, over the course of four weeks. Around that time, Tom figures out the whiteboard's secret name, becomes the Prince of China, and we start fawning over this year's set of Old Spice Commercials. Oh, and some stuff about fantasy football.
Tom: We'll start with the AFC East and the AFC North.
Mike: Personally, I don't know how Buffalo can survive without T.O.
Tom: With their quarterbacks, they only need one wide receiver. Lee Evans was, the last time we saw him with a credible quarterback, a decent deep threat.
Mike: The big question is, what will be the split in carries between Fred Jackson, C.J. Spiller, and Marshawn Lynch. Actually, no, the bigger question is how to fit "Greater Toronto Metropolitan Area" into a snappy team name.
Tom: Why do we think the Greater Toronto Metropolitan Area will be their future?
Mike: Uh, because Buffalo. And it being Buffalo. Which, honestly, is probably part of said area at this point.
Tom: The switch to the 3-4 strikes me as insane.
Mike: But it's so in right now! I think we've seen something odd in the past few years with teams moving to the 3-4 because of deficiencies on their defensive lines, rather than switching to accentuate strength in the linebacker corps. This, of course, is a recipe for disaster.
Tom: But the 3-4 is popular, and special! I could sort of see why Jacksonville tried out the 3-4 last year, since the defense was lousy in 2008 and maybe a change of scheme would help. Does Buffalo actually realize they had a decent defense last year?
Mike: I'm not even sure the staff is paying any attention to Buffalo at this point. The Bills have the second-toughest average opponent, according to scandalously available-for-purchase Football Outsiders Almanac 2010. Five wins is certainly a safe proposition. Under.
Tom: If they go winless in the division (quite possible), they need to go 6-4 in non-conference games. That's not happening. Under from me as well.
Mike: Wildcat. Wildcat. Wildcat. Wildcat. Wildcat. Out of our system now?
Tom: Aaron just gave an interview with Phinsider (Miami SBN site) where he noted that Miami was one of the few teams that could run the Wildcat the right way.
Mike: Apparently not.
Tom: As in, the Wildcat as a real offensive scheme, with enough possible plays to make it credible. Now, if Chad Henne is a good quarterback, that's a different issue.
Mike: And if Ronnie Brown can keep it going for another year. He's falling apart.
Tom: Can Ricky Williams sustain his late-career resurgence? Two old running backs is scary..
Tom: How much does Brandon Marshall upgrade the passing game? I don't feel like I have a good answer to that question.
Mike: I think he'll loom large, but I don't think he'll make a huge difference. I think we are going to see a move away from the wildcat, even if Henne is miserable, however. Just because I don't see an engine waiting in the wings, and like you said, two older backs. The wildcat was a creature of necessity, and it will last only as long as it's viable.
Tom: It'll look more like a gimmick they pull out occasionally than a staple of the offense.
Mike: So, it'll be like other teams' option packages. Except not as lame.
Tom: Exactly. I don't have a good feel for the Dolphins at all. They could go 5-11 or 11-5, and it wouldn't shock me either way.
Mike: Sounds a lot like New Orleans from last year, so I'll do what I did last year and make fun of them and dismissively, then say under. And then watch them win a championship.
Tom: I will hesitatingly agree with you and say under.
Tom: That playoff loss left a very sour taste in the mouth.
Mike: Yeah, but who cares, really? New England is a professional organization with a lot of veterans. And, I'm increasingly convinced, is coached by the Hypnotoad.
Tom: I guess ...
Mike: It's a joke, Tom. Jokes are fun.
Tom: I own a "Where Fun Comes to Die" T-shirt. It's the UChicago in me.
Mike: This is going to be a long season ...
Mike: I'm not worried about the offense whatsoever. The keys are all still in place.
Well, actually, I have a twinge of worry. I still think the secondary is going to be lit up, which means lots of shoot-outs. I'm wondering if the Pats can still keep up.
Tom: Who is going to rush the passer?
Mike: Tully Banta-Cain?
Tom: I guess. They were 18th in Adjusted Sack Rate the last two years, which is a little better than I thought they were.
Mike: If Belichick deserves any credit for being a great coach, it is undoubtedly rooted in the way he brings it from all over the place in LeBeau-like fashion.
Tom: I thought the three Super Bowl wins in four years was evidence of coaching competence, but if you want to list creative pass pressure first, that's fine with me.
Mike: This is not going to become a referendum on Belichick. Even we aren't willing to spend that much space. I think he can hold the defense together enough to get the edge in the boatloads of inevitable shoot-outs, however, so over.
Tom: This is boring, we're agreeing with each other. Over.
Mike: Sanchize II: Electric Boogaloo!
Tom: It feels like people don't realize he had one of the worst seasons a rookie quarterback has ever had.
Mike: Wins are credited to the quarterback. As far as this year goes, Sanchez does have a great new weapon in Santonio Holmes.
Tom: Sure, he's a deep threat, kind of like Braylon Edwards only less droppy. They need someone to catch intermediate passes.
Mike: I actually think Holmes is going to be catching those intermediate passes. He's not the ideal possession receiver, but he has good enough hands and routes.
Tom: At least after the first four weeks, maybe.
Mike: Well, yeah. But I think he'll help Sanchez immensely, which should move him from awful to mediocre.
Tom: I'm not sure it'll be enough to offset the likely decline in the running game and offensive line.
Mike: No, but it'll still be good, which should be more than enough. Over.
Tom: Good defense, OK running game, mediocre passing game. That sounds to me like 7-9 wins. Under.
Mike: Hooray, boring AFC East done!
Tom: First in DVOA, 11.6 Pythagorean Wins last season.
Mike: Baltimore is going to be scary good. I think watching them may actually cause injury.
Tom: Tennessee doesn't play them this year, no skin off my back ... or whatever the expression is. I'm not sure I buy that Joe Flacco will be quite good enough, but I expect the defense again to be very good and the running game to be strong. Anquan Boldin has his flaws as a player, but he's still a big upgrade on Mark Clayton.
Mike: I think Flacco has shown he can be at the least a good starting quarterback. Maybe he has a slump en route to that. I could see it, considering the tough division, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Tom: I have more confidence in him than I had in Kerry Collins in 2008, and the Titans went 13-3.
Mike: That said, who exactly is playing cornerback?
Tom: I'm sure they'll be game-planning to cover for them.
Mike: By what, getting the competition committee to remove the position?
Tom: It will at least be a much more difficult task if they'll be sans Ed Reed for the first six or so games.
Mike: Actually, now that I think about it, I'm really unconvinced of Baltimore's pass defense. Even with Reed, honestly. He's going to regress this year -- that may mean going from insane to merely great, but that would open up all sorts of holes.
Tom: I still believe in this team.
Mike: You know, I'm going to take the coward's option. I think this team is as good as exactly 10 wins, which may actually win the division in the end. Push.
Tom: Wimp. Over.
Mike: There is no way in hell that Cedric Benson has another season like last year.
Tom: Probably not.
Mike: And even in addition to that, I'm concerned about this offensive line.
Tom: For winning a decent division, they were an unimpressive 10-6. 8.4 Pythagorean Wins and 19th in DVOA. They looked almost as limited in their playoff game as Miami did in 2008. Incidentally, we're writing this as we are watching the Hall of Fame Game, and in the player intros they mentioned Benson had 169 yards on the ground against the Jets. Big freaking deal. I mean, that was good against the Jets, but they still looked extraordinarily unthreatening.
Mike: We also saw Emmitt Smith call Al Michaels "Mike." The fact that we are watching the Hall of Fame Game explains so much about this column, really. It's sucking my brains out.
Tom: Well, for some definition of watching.
Mike: Have I mentioned how awful Fawcett Stadium is, even by high school football standards? I have? OK.
Tom: It's not sucking my brains out nearly as quickly as the Famers-Gamers Madden thing that was on before it.
Mike: The wife and I actually turned this on a few minutes early and were so very, very confused. So, they had actual football players and then some kind of Madden gamer or two thrown in on each team? Or something?
Tom: As Rich Eisen pointed out on Twitter, doing that was either a career killer or showed he has future as a play-by-play guy.
Mike: They also only handed out copies of Madden for Playstation 3. I wonder if people in the audience without PS3s got to trade their copies out at the door. Anyway. Cincy’s main problem down the stretch, as you mentioned, was that the passing game collapsed.
Tom: It was mediocre all year, and then disappeared. I can't see T.O. fixing the mediocrity, and it's way too easy to see him and Ochenta Y Cinco not getting along well.
Mike: I don't see why not. He's not top 10 anymore, but two top-20 receivers is more than enough. There are concerns about personnel insanity, but we have that every year. Cincinnati is a madhouse. But let's assume that there isn't some kind of locker room explosion ...
Tom: I didn't know you were an economist.
Mike: This is why I always carry a can opener -- to beat the economist over the head.
Tom: Meltdown seems inevitable in Cincinnati this year.
Mike: I disagree. T.O. got a taste of being on a listless, hopeless, useless, and otherwise depressing adjective-laden team last year. I don't think he's mellowed, but I think he's finally at the point where he knows enough not to destroy. Ochocinco does everything, as the kids say, "for the lolz." Much more agent provocateur than locker room cancer.
Tom: I think you're a little too optimistic, but we shall see. Still a mediocre offense, plus a less-good defense, plus a team that wasn't 10-6 good points to a FOA-approved under from me.
Mike: It's a very even division. Like I said, I can see Baltimore getting the division with 10 wins. Cincy is better than .500, so nine wins sounds about right. Over.
Tom: Lousy team, suitably lousy over/under.
Mike: It all depends on which random player Mangini decides to bench.
Tom: I'm not sure they have any more bad players blocking good players like Lewis-Harrison. On the other hand, from Quinn and Anderson to Delhomme and Wallace, they have more age, but a different mix of mediocrity.
Mike: No, the sad thing is that the Mangini Browns are probably the most sane version we've seen since the team was resuscitated. That's the real dig.
Tom: This team was just so unrelentingly awful for the first dozen games of 2009
Mike: I still have no idea what the rebuilding plan is. Holmgren had a year or two of free passes. He could've waited until a draft with a decent quarterback class came around.
Tom: I hated Colt McCoy as a prospect, as readers of our draft liveblog learned, and Cleveland isn't my favorite place for a popgun arm like his.
Mike: Love him or hate him, they seem to have set up their rebuilding strategy on a second- or third-tier quarteback prospect in a bad year for quarterbacks because ... I don't know, Holmgren is impatient?
Tom: They need to sell hope.
Mike: Browns fans are like Cubs fans. They will always buy tickets.
Tom: Years and years of consistent badness can beat that out of a fan base. See, the Detroit Lions.
Mike: You underestimate Browns fans. They are insanely loyal. Depressed and angry, but loyal. In any case, this is about the Browns this year, not three years down the road. No team featuring Seneca Wallace or Jake Delhomme is going to win six games. Under.
Tom: Four-game winning streaks and shiny new quarterbacks do help promote fan optimism. I can see the Browns winning six games, but I don't think they will. Under.
Mike: God, Pittsburgh is such a headache. The Steelers weren't incredibly impressive last year. The defense was the worst the team has posted in the DVOA era, and they lost a lot of close games. No Ben Roethlisberger for likely four weeks in 2010. And a makeshift receiving corps.
Tom: Makeshift? They need Mike Wallace to play well in an expanded role. And Ward not to hit the 30-something receiver wall.
Mike: Any scheme that seriously includes Antwaan Randle El is makeshift.
Tom: He's OK as a third or fourth guy.
Mike: I suppose. I think it really comes down to whether Rashard Mendenhall can break out.
Tom: FOA and KUBIAK come out fairly definitively on that issue, and unlike with the Rams projection last year, I don't see any ridiculously glaring reasons to doubt that projection.
Mike: True. I still don't think Pittsburgh matches up well with the other (good) teams in its division, and it's down a star quarterback for four to six weeks. I can't get behind nine wins with that combination.
Tom: A perennially decent to really good defense, a running game that I think should be better, and the ability to make do for four to six games. Roethlisberger is really good, but I think they'll do better than you think with a quarterback who won't hold on to the ball forever and is willing to play within the game plan.
Mike: It's also important that, as a member of the media, I lower expectations for Pittsburgh as much as possible, thereby improving actual performance.
Tom: I think you tend to vacillate between the Inverse Hype Theory of Success and actually hating your team. It's a very thin line.
Mike: Blame the Pirates.
Tom: Anyway, 8.5 really isn't that many wins for a decent team. Over.
Mike: I think this is a .500 team. Under.
See, that wasn't so bad! Tune in next week, when Tom and Mike make all sorts of enemies in the AFC South and AFC West!
47 comments, Last at 26 Aug 2010, 12:57am by derftron