How did New England find the right combination of offensive linemen this season, and where are Seattle's biggest weaknesses in pass protection?
18 Aug 2010
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Let us all bow our heads and have a moment of silence for Tom's Internet connection. Your Scramble writers apologize for the uneven writing style these technical difficulties have caused.
Tom: I feel bad for Vince, who had to write the Houston chapter of Football Outsiders Almanac 2010. There seems to be a popular perception of the Texans as a team on the rise, but our projection hates Houston this year.
Mike: It seems a bit harsh, honestly. We make great hay of their schedule, and while we do predict an average opponent in the top 10, the ninth-hardest schedule in the NFL is hardly the kiss of death.
Tom: The Texans did fit as one of those teams I thought people might be overrating, but that just meant I was expecting them to be around 8-8, not to fall off a cliff.
Mike: I think it also has a lot to do with how much you like Steve Slaton.
Mike: I'm not sure I'm really qualified to assess him, since most of my knowledge comes from fantasy, where he helped me out a lot last year when my squads were demolished by injury. So maybe I'm a bit sentimental, but I think he gets a bad rap.
Tom: Eh, maybe.
Mike: I think that in any case his benching was absurd.
Tom: The big thing is the defense; I mentioned in Four Downs this offseason that the Texans have never had an above-average pass defense by DVOA. Sure, they drafted Kareem Jackson in the first round, but they lost Dunta Robinson. Yeah, it's cool, let's all rip on Dunta Robinson, but he's almost certainly still better than a rookie corner, and they still don't have a free safety they can trust.
Mike: No, I agree that the pass defense is largely garbage, but if the offense is good enough to win the inevitable shootouts, it's not a fatal flaw.
Tom: I'm still more worried about Matt Schaub being healthy than I am with whoever is playing running back.
Mike: That's another high point: When Schaub is injured, there will be no Rex Grossman Experience! That alone may be the best roster change in the NFL.
Mike: I'll take cannoli over the dragon any day of the week.
Tom: Here's the thing about the red zone stuff; our numbers, as shown in ESPN's fantasy football magazine, say the Texans were actually OK in the red zone. They were 13th in red zone touchdown rate and slightly below-average running inside the five, mostly because Chris Brown sucks at power running.
I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this, but I think I'm thinking that whatever Houston's problems were last year, it wasn't necessarily with the running back.
Mike: Probably true, and also probably true that even if the running game is good, the chance of injury to Schaub is too great to have much optimism for this team.
Tom: Slaton's real problem may have been ball security, which Tiki Barber showed is something that can be fixed. The running back question is more an issue for fantasy, but I'm quite concerned about the big issues like Schaub and the pass defense. I'll go under.
Mike: Agreed, under.
Tom: The Colts have won 12 or more games in each of the last seven seasons. We have already agreed that the Texans will be under .500.
Mike: The Colts are really why I'm preoccupied with running backs in the AFC South.
Tom: Joseph Addai is one of the reasons I still hate fantasy football, because he's still a great fit for the Colts offense and can have a pretty good game with a line like 21 carries for 79 yards.
Mike: Since we're talking about hate, I hate writing an over/under for the Colts. They are as constant as the stars, and there's simply so little new from year to year to talk about. Maybe that's at the core of the Colts/Patriots dispute ... New England has a soul to its ridiculous winning ways, whereas Indy is just like a machine with Peyton Manning as the engine, soullessly churning out wins.
Tom: I think you're underrating just how interesting the Colts are from a team-building perspective. Starting with your soulless quarterback, how you go about churning out wins is an interesting question.
Mike: I suppose that's true, and it is interesting the way they attack the problem, but they do it in much the same way other consistently good franchises do it. They take care of the big tickets and then try to get value by finding players that are marginal or can semi-uniquely fit into their scheme. Second to that is the ability to prioritize; not only for the team to find uniquely suitable talent but to figure out what they absolutely must have for the system to work and then figure out what they can cut to the bone.
Tom: FO interviewed Bill Polian a couple years ago, and one thing we didn't ask him for that I'd be interested to hear is his response to is the FO theory that running back performance is heavily dependent on the offensive line, so you don't really need a premium running back.Yet Polian is a guy who has drafted three first-round running backs in the 12 post-Manning drafts. In any case, I'll be curious to see how Brown looks in his second season.
Mike: What I want to see is some hint of Anthony Gonzalez's upside. While it's probably true that there is a base level of performance that Manning will get out of anyone, better receivers will of course make his job easier and (as crazy as it sounds) make him look better.
Tom: Coming out of Columbus, I didn't think it was that high. Weird thing, though, is I'm not sure it mattered that much. The colts were stuck playing Dallas Clark in the slot during the team's Super Bowl run just because they didn't have a third wideout they could trust. It seems that things have improved a little since then, but the thing I really liked about Bill's latest installments of wide receiver Plus-Minus was it became clearer just how relatively below-average the non-Reggie Wayne receivers were that year.
Tom: I'm really starting to ramble, but I find the Colts almost endlessly fascinating.
Mike: I admire their consistent performance, but I don't find much fascinating about them. They have a set philosophy that works, in a generally soft division, with the luxury of pursuing such strategy due to the presence of one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. All that to say that they're probably going to hit the over.
Tom: Why mess with success? Recent history plus weakness in the division makes this an over for me as well.
Mike: My God, it's full of holes. I don't even know where to start.
Tom: I had to write the team chapter, so I can tell you all about those.
Mike: Tell us, writer of the chapter, what is the worst hole of them all?
Tom: The hole that'll hurt them most in 2010 is the horrible secondary, which they didn't address at all in the offseason, either through the draft or free agency.
Mike: It seems that we're complaining about a lot of secondaries this year. I wonder what's going on there.
Tom: Let me note that was a regular season column idea.
Mike: "Why Does Everyone's Secondary Suck?" That seems somewhat limited.
Tom: More "Well, Pass Defense is Hard." And it seems like it might be harder than it was 10 to 15 years ago.
Mike: I think it's definitely harder than it was 10 to 15 years ago, in large part thanks to rules changes.
Tom: The other part of it is that it is easy to find possible holes in a secondary. Bad secondaries almost certainly don't have the chance to go out and add a Darrelle Revis or Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency. Good secondaries often have their good but non-elite players raided by other teams, like Pittsburgh losing a cornerback. Anyway, Jacksonville is hoping that an improved pass rush from a revamped defensive line can make their Lions-caliber secondary look non-horrid. I am skeptical.
Mike: Maybe that's why we're commenting on so many bad secondaries, because so many teams try that strategy. All save Baltimore fail.
Tom: And Baltimore's been covering for corners, not for both corners and safeties.
Mike: Yeah. Pass rush is not going to fix your overall pass defense.
Tom: I think the Jaguars should be kind of OK on offense, and somewhat improved on run defense. Mentally, I had them at around six to eight wins, so I'm going to be statistically unintelligent and say 7.0 is a push.
Mike: I think 7 wins is too high for what could be a disastrously flawed team. Under.
Mike: Must ... overwork ... Chris ... Johnson ...
Tom: The 422-carry, 1,740-yard Wisdom of the Crowds projection for Johnson is my nightmare.
Mike: You should honestly prepare for your nightmare to become reality. Honestly, I'm waiting for him to actually die on the field.
Tom: The Titans had a very narrative season in 2009. They lost their first six games because they played bad pass defense, then went 8-2 in their last 10 games, not because they played quality defense, but because they played better offense. Specifically, when Vince Young had an above-average game, they won (8-0, with positive DVOA). When he had a below-average game, they lost (0-2, with negative DVOA). So, in those 10 games, the quarterback really was solely responsible for all wins and losses!
Mike: You and Simmons should write a book about it.
Tom: As silly as that theory is, I really do think that's a good rule of thumb for the 2010 Titans. They will go as far as Young is good at passing.
Mike: I'm not sure we won't see some of the Rex Grossman/Derek Anderson effect here. Young was essentially a new player coming on to the scene last year, so I'm wary of putting any stamp of approval on him just yet, in case it was a newbie bump.
Tom: I'm not sure I agree with the Rexxy/Anderson comparisons, but that may just be me being too close to the team that I want to concentrate on the distinctions.
Mike: I'm not saying they're exactly the same, just using them as prominent examples of quarterbacks who put up good numbers because other teams weren't ready for them and/or didn't have enough material to properly game plan against them. Once the honeymoon was over, splat.
Tom: I think it's more he benefited from Johnson's great year, and probably won't be quite as productive if/when Johnson isn't as productive.
Mike: Both are probably viable theories. Probably a little of both, actually.
Tom: That's why I'm expecting another 8-8-type season. Eight is a smaller number than 8.5, so this is another under for me.
Mike: I think they'll work Johnson to death, which should be enough for the over. And in a few years' time we'll be talking about the great talent the Titans wrecked.
Tom: We shall see.
Tom: I'll have a lot less to say about the AFC West than I did about the AFC South. AFC West fans, consider this as further proof that FO hates your team.
Mike: But ... but ... Tim Tebow!
Tom: He's not starting this year, unless Kyle Orton gets hurt. Maybe not even then.
Mike: Oh, there is absolutely no way he is starting this year.
Tom: You didn't see Brady Quinn play this weekend.
Mike: Thank heaven for small blessings.
Tom: If I were a true cynic, I'd think McDaniels fired Mike Nolan not because Denver's defense collapsed last season but because Nolen gets credit for Denver being decent back when we thought Denver was decent.
Mike: There is an astounding amount of psychoanalysis directed at McDaniels, more than perhaps any coach other than Belichick.
Tom: Why, just because in two offseasons he's run out of town maybe two of the four (Ryan Clady and Champ Bailey) best players on the team?
Mike: In his defense, we don't really know what happened between McDaniels and those players. They could really be head cases, or it's also possible the previous administration just spoiled them rotten.
Tom: Sure, and I'm not claiming that either Jay Cutler or Brandon Marshall is the world's easiest person to get along with, but it still doesn't make a lot of sense. I wonder if McDaniels needs to listen to stories about how Bill Parcells made special rules for LT, just because sometimes you have to adapt to your best players, not have all your players conform to you.
Mike: I question whether that's a good idea. Sure, it worked for Parcells, but imagine the different outlook for Pittsburgh this season if Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin had beaten Ben Roethlisberger into the ground a little bit more.
Tom: Or traded him after a mediocre 2006 season.
Mike: I'm just saying, treating your stars differently is not always a good idea.
Tom: Not always, but sometimes.
Mike: Anyway, I imagine a lot of this line is due to Marshall leaving, and it should be. Orton is the kind of quarterback that will be productive with good receiving talent and unproductive with mediocre talent.
Tom: Fortunately, they now have LenDale White to save their offense! Once he returns from his four-game suspension, that is.
Mike: It speaks volumes for how much of a factor White will be that I can't even remember what he is suspended for.
Tom: Violation of the substance abuse policy.
Mike: Ah, right.
Tom: We should probably also mention their only good pass rusher is out for the year. All over/unders were pulled at or after the first column, at which point Elvis Dumervil was already injured and out for the year.
Mike: Long story short, regardless of the motivations for various firings, the defense was wholly inept. Under.
At this point, a man wearing black walks on stage holding a mannequin of Al Gore, stabs it, and disappears into the background. Tom did not take this malfunction well:
Tom: FOA does like the Chiefs, or at least "the Chiefs in the context of their projected schedule." I have to go back, however, to what I harped on during the draft -- they had the second-worst run defense by DVOA in the league and didn't really do anything to address that. It's not just DVOA, either -- they were second-worst in yards allowed and yards per carry allowed also, so it's not just situational. We put Demorrio Williams and Glenn Dorsey on the All-KCW Team, if you recall.
I guess the expected improvement comes from top-five picks Dorsey and Jackson improving, or maybe Eric Berry has some big impact, but it's tough for me to see a safety having that much effect on run defense. The pass defense should be OK, but I don't see why they won't still get run over constantly. Jamaal Charles had a great half-season, but at what looks like an unsustainable full-season pace. They picked up Thomas Jones and are talking like they're giving him maybe a majority of the carries. That's great for Charles' durability, less great for their 2010 prospects. I still don't like Matt Cassel or the offensive line in pass protection, or their wideouts. They're not nearly as horrid as the 2009 Rams, so I can't say that FOA's optimistic projection of them winning the division is nuts. I wouldn't go that far myself, but I can see 7 to 8 wins. Over.
Mike: I disagree strongly with the FOA position on the Chiefs. I must admit that part of it is my very, very amusing memories of last year's Cleveland/Kansas City game. Bill did a good job outlining the factors feeding into that projection, but I'm just not buying the narrative. The offense improvement is resting on the shoulders of Jamaal Charles, an untested running back, and Casey Wiegmann, who is ridiculously, absurdly, astoundingly old. Kansas City's offensive line was ranked 25th in pass protection by Adjusted Sack Rate and 30th in run blocking by Adjusted Line Yards. The line is awful, the league will have a lot more tape on Charles moving into this year, and Matt Cassel is going to continue to be harassed mercilessly. Even granting good development from the young talent on defense, and the relatively low line, I'm still unwilling to go with anything other than the under.
Mike: Amusingly, the breaking news that the Raiders are actually going to properly utilize their best player this year has changed my opinion of this team. Well, it has changed my opinion of the over-under, at least. The Raiders have been one of those "inescapable miasma of suck" teams for quite a while now, but this ridiculously common-sense move, paired with the new hope a decent quarterback brings, may be enough to elevate this team from the ranks of the truly miserable to the merely bad. The team also highlights one of the most difficult parts of football analysis: peeling back the layers and judging individual players and units individually. There is so much interplay between a quarterback and his wide receivers that when a team gets to Raiders-level futility, it's hard to say where the quarterback's ineptness ends and the wide receiver's begins. Aside from Darrius Heyward-Bey, of course.
Now I'm not saying that Chaz Schilens or Zach Miller or Johnnie Lee Higgins is going to lead the league in receiving this year (I'm not even going to bother talking about Heyward-Bey), but I'm willing to give them a chance to prove themselves with a quarterback who is not JaMarcus Russell. I think they may even have a shot at respectability, at least this year, because one of the major knocks on Campbell, his inability to deal with pressure, will not be as much of an issue. I look at their schedule and see four, maybe five games where Oakland will have to deal with a big-league pass rush, plus a few of those secondaries we have been endlessly complaining about. The Raiders certainly won't win the division, but I'll give them enough credit to crawl past six wins for the over.
I repeat myself from last year's Over/Under section. The last time the Oakland Raiders won as many as six games in a single regular season, they made the Super Bowl. Yes, Jason Campbell is an upgrade at quarterback over JaMarcus Russell. The wideouts are still lousy, the offensive line mediocre, Darren McFadden oft-injured, the defensive line not bad but lacking in a real difference-maker, I question the linebackers, and the secondary is still Nnamdi Asomugha and a bunch of guys you can throw on successfully. I'll believe they'll win six games when they actually do it, which might not be until the regular season goes to 18 games. Under.
Tom: I admit it, I kind of enjoy one-dimensional teams like last year's Chargers, who had a great passing offense and not much else. The Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill holdouts scare me, though -- without those two guys, it's hard to see the passing offense being nearly as productive. With better health on the offensive line and the fresh young legs of Ryan Mathews, I think the running game can really rebound to at least mediocrity (great career, but Tomlinson really looked washed up last year and his old burst looked almost completely gone). The next question is whether and how much the defense can improve. Not having to spend time fumbling around trying to find the next nose tackle will help. Shawne Merriman to me looked done as a great pass rusher, so they'll need Larry English to play better. We'll see. The secondary looks only OK. If they had a great pass rusher, I might almost like it, but without that pass rush, I think they can be had. I'm a little more optimistic than FOA, but I'll still go with the under.
Mike: The AFC West is just so bad in so many ways, it's honestly hard to see San Diego not winning 11 games. Even if they split with Denver, the division itself is likely to get the team roughly halfway there, and the rest of the schedule is hardly murder's row -- FOA projects the Chargers to face the second-easiest average opponent this coming season, even with its very rosy picture of the Chiefs. I think in the end the Chargers are going to be very dangerous but very one-dimensional, as Tom pointed out. I'm going to take the schedule and the fact that they seem to be a low-rent version of the Patriots and take the over.
Next week your Scramble writers get a bit more with the times and transition to Kabuki. Expect a lotta waka for next week's survey of the NFC West and NFC South!
49 comments, Last at 10 Sep 2010, 5:02pm by tuluse