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?
12 Dec 2012
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: So, Mike, there are three second-year defensive players of note. Well, three having superlative seasons. I speak, of course, of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith, and Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller. Each of them has at least 16.0 sacks this year in addition to some other impressive defensive results.
Mike: All three have been on a tear, although Watt has become somewhat more famous for his unique skill at batting passes.
Tom: Indeed. Even without any Monday night (just three quarterback hits, two tackles for no gain, and a forced fumble), he still has 15, while Smith has none and Miller only two.
Mike: This is someone unfair to Smith and Miller, who get a lesser spotlight partly because Watt has a novel skill that hasn't really been exposed by the media prior to his ascendance, which means networks must saturate everything related to the Texans with his stats.
Tom: Well, it's just so incredibly rare for a defensive lineman, especially one in a 3-4, to knock down very many passes. Watt was a fine player last year as a rookie, but he only knocked down four passes. He's clearly doing some things very right to knock down so many passes, but I can't help but see his effort this year as in part the product of a lot of luck.
Mike: I can't really find anything about him undergoing any extra coaching or training to develop this skill.
Tom: Perhaps that's a bit unfair to Watt, but given the alternatives of (a) a player doing something not seen before because he's better at it than any other player in NFL history or (b) a great player who's having a lucky season, I'm going to choose (b) pretty much every time.
Mike: The Scramble writers are notoriously difficult to win over. But it's a sound attitude. Sometimes crazy (but fun and wonderful) things happen, and then turn out to be aberrations.
Tom: I think of it kind of the way I think about Aaron Rodgers' play much of last season. It was about as fine a job as you'll see in the NFL, but a lot of things that could easily go wrong had to go right. Although, I did get curious about second-year players who had the same sort of success.
Tom: Sacks have only been an official statistic since 1982, so we don't have that much of a basis for comparison. But if you look at the full list of players in their second year who had at least 15.0 sacks, well ... it's Richard Dent, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Derrick Thomas, Shawne Merriman, Jason Pierre-Paul, and these three.
Mike: That is ... a very good list. I'm not sure we can take too much from it, though.
Tom: Obviously Merriman's production dropped off after his start to his career and we don't know what JPP is going to be, but, um, yeah, that's a good list.
Mike: There is a reason we prefer similarity scores to cover larger spans of years.
Tom: Oh, absolutely. I'm doing the Texans chapter for Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, and one of the questions I'll probably be looking at is just what is a reasonable expectation for Watt's performance after this crazy season.
Mike: Let's have a look at the next years for the other guys on that list and see where they ended up.
Tom: White started his career in the USFL, so 1986 wasn't his second pro season. He went from 18.0 to 21.0 sacks. In 12 games. I feel like that needs to be better known.
Mike: I think that came up frequently during the discussion of his candidacy.
And by "discussion" I mean "holy crap here is a list of all the ways Reggie White is awesome."
Tom: Did it? I didn't notice it that much.
Dent went from 17.5 to 17.0 sacks and played on what's probably the greatest defense in NFL history. (The 1985 Bears.)
Bruce Smith went from 15.0 sacks to 12.0 (also in 12 games). It's probably worth nothing Thomas' 20 sacks in his second season included his seven-sack game against the Seahawks, so it's not too much of a surprise that he only had 13.5 the next year.
Merriman went from 17.0 sacks in 12 games to 12.5 in 15. JPP's season isn't completed yet, but he has 6.5 sacks. To get a bigger sample, I also looked at all players with 15.0 sacks in any of their first three seasons. It's still a pretty good list of names, but you also have some names like Mike Merriweather and Adewale Ogunleye that aren't quite so unbelievable.
Mike: Double-counts Dent and White, of course.
Tom: Well, to the extent that they had two seasons that fit the criteria.
Mike: Just highlighting how great Dent and White were.
Tom: I know. It's like they should be in the Hall of Fame or something!
Mike: Someone call Peter King!
Tom: Coincidentally (or not), our big three make up three of the top four candidates (along with Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins) for Defensive Player of the Year. Any thoughts on that award, Mike, or which of the three you'd take going forward?
Mike: I think that Atkins is getting overlooked in most of these discussions because, absent some kind of game-changing talent, most people commenting on the subject haven't seen enough tape to judge the players fairly. I have seen a decent amount of Atkins and it disappoints me that he is being overlooked solely because his sack total is lower. And sacks, like interceptions, are the go-to stat when someone is trying to judge players they don't know that much about.
Tom: Well, I think that the Bengals having fewer wins than the 49ers, Texans, or Broncos also plays a role in that. It kind of is what it is.
Mike: Defense in general is more arcane and less exciting to write about, so I'm not criticizing anyone for using these stats or for giving players slight boosts for being on better teams. I've only seen Watt and Atkins enough to really have an informed opinion, going by that list.
Tom: When I discovered that even defensive sacks seem to be more a function of the opposing offense (read quarterback), I wasn't surprised. Unfortunately, we don't have a good way to produce an overall quanta of pressure, so we use one specific quantum aggregate as a substitute.
Mike: The other difficulty in ranking defensive players is that, unlike offensive players, their roles are much more varied. Running backs, wide receivers, and (to an increasing extent) tight ends are judged by their ability to move the ball down the field. Most other skills, with the notable exception of blocking for non-receivers, are considered perks.
Tom: Yup. When he was coming out of Texas A&M, I kind of questioned the extent to which Miller would have been a fit for every defense, or maybe every defensive coach. And I still wonder how much of Aldon Smith's effectiveness is the result of playing on a really good defense and the great work he does with Justin Smith, who was my Defensive Player of the Year last year. Some of what makes Watt so remarkable is that he's doing this as a base 3-4 defensive end, though he plays defensive tackle (generally) when the Texans go to a four-man line in sub package situations. If he was doing similar things as a 4-3 defensive tackle, it might not seem quite so remarkable.
Mike: That said, as wary as I am of bowing to the conventional narrative, I think Watt is just having a special year. He has to be a strong favorite, in my mind.
Tom: With a Stop Rate of 99 percent before Monday night's game against the Patriots, I do believe you're right there. No matter who wins it -- and the overall success of Watt and the Texans probably makes him the favorite -- all three of them are having special seasons and could be very special players going forward.
Tom: Well, my fantasy season ended just as ignominiously as most of it went. I left my two highest-scoring receivers, Pierre Garcon and Darrius Heyward-Bey, on my bench, and lost by 61. My opponent's highest scorer was, of course, Adrian Peterson, while Autodrafted Second Round Quarterback Matthew Stafford outscored waiver wire pickup Jake Locker by less than 1 point.
Mike: My first post of the year to my league was "Never count out the champ." I backed into the playoffs as the eighth seed, up against a dominant first seed who has held first place since Week 3.
Tom: You of course won, proving that regular season success is just as unimportant in fantasy football as it is in NFL football if you just make the playoffs?
Mike: Thanks to good plays on matchups and some Ben Roethlisberger garbage time, plus an assist from the weather in Wisconsin, I didn't just win, I dominated, 133.8-103.62. That was even with terrible games from Jermaine Gresham, Jimmy Graham and Robbie Gould (who injured himself in pregame warm-ups).
Tom: Congratulations. I hope this came over a beloved relative over whom you'll be able to lord your triumph this holiday season.
Mike: It will be glorious. In my other league, I was in sixth place in a league with a four-team playoff, with a big mess in the middle of the standings. I needed to win big in order to get in, particularly against my opponent, who had a game and about 45 points on me. I won 129.74-83.14 on the strength of monster games by Jeremy Maclin, Victor Cruz, Jamaal Charles, and Ray Rice.
Tom: That ... sounds like enough to overcome your deficit.
Mike: The end result? I took the fourth seed by two points.
Tom: And indeed it was, congratulations on your glorious triumph. I know the players couldn't have done it without your mental encouragement.
Mike: I am a clubhouse magician. Seriously, I do magic tricks and stuff. Anyway, next week I'm up against Drew Brees and Peterson. Here's hoping for more blues in New Orleans.
Tom: I just want to say, good luck, we're all counting on you.
Dikembe Mutombo's 4 ½ Weeks to Save the World
"A video game made to stop an actual event that might happen if an ancient civilization was as smart as we think."
All right, so it's not technically a commercial, but if you look at the link's URL you'll see that this is an Old Spice production, via the marketing firm Wieden & Kennedy. As with most of Old Spice's recent marketing, it is completely brilliant and basically has nothing to do with their product.
The conceit is that the Mayan Calendar predicted the end of the world a bit over a week from now. What the Mayans did not plan on was Dikembe Mutombo and his wagging finger of salvation. This game is probably most in line with their past few years of work, featuring loads of one-liners and non sequiturs. But it works, because the writing is weird, amusing, and Mutombo's voice-acting performance must be heard to be believed. Plus, you can beat Dikembe's best friends, Science the Bear and Random Turkey! The first stage starts out with Mutombo flying through the Earth in an Old Spice jet pack, delivering ballots to voters who are too busy dancing to a Korean Youtube sensation to vote for President, thereby bringing about the end of the world. From there, you have to destroy the lottery to keep a Hollywood studio from winning enough money to make another teenage vampire romance movie, and destroy an evil group of not-Furbies without adorable children watching.
It is insane. I love it.
Quarterback: There are bad Loser League scores, and then there are BAD Loser League scores. John Skelton falls into the latter category this week, ending up with an amazing -7 thanks to five turnovers.
Running Back: Fred Jackson's lousy day was partly the result of an injury that ended his season, while Bryce Brown ran into the buzzsaw that is the Tampa Bay run defense. Both players ended up with 0 points.
Wide Receiver: Golden Tate, Jeremy Kerley, and Early Doucet all had 0 fantasy points, with only Kerley doing so with the "benefit" of a fumble.
Kicker: Obviously Ryan Succop's missed field goal is the reason the Chiefs lost to the Browns... by 20 points instead of by 23. -1 point.
Keep Chopping Wood: There is no John Skelton. There is no Max Hall. There is no Richard Bartel. There is no Kevin Kolb. There is no Ryan Lindley. There is just Post-Kurt Warner Arizona Cardinals Quarterback. Larry Fitzgerald declared that he had to laugh because he could not just cry after the Jets game, what can he do now?
Mike Martz Award: Mike Munchak thought it was a good idea to attempt a 57-yard field goal in the first quarter on the grounds that it would give the Titans a 10-point lead. Apparently, the Indianapolis Colts are incapable of surmounting that kind of deficit with only 50 minutes to recover, never you mind the 12-point deficit they overcame in the final couple minutes the week before. Then of course, Munchak made the call to run a quarterback sneak on first-and-10 in what proved to be the Titans' final possession of the game, because neither the coaching staff nor the team realized that the Titans had been awarded a first down on the previous play. With only three downs to get the first, the Titans failed to convert and then punted the ball away, choosing to rely on DVOA's 27th-ranked defense with unsurprising results.
Sifter: Here's PLENTY of lineup calls to chew on! My team has been smashed by injuries in the last few weeks (Michael Vick, Willis McGahee, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, now Dez Bryant and injuries on Chicago D). Here's a summary of my dilemmas for this week - obviously some of the guys I'm listing are the best free agents available, I put stars next to the guys I own. FYI, it's a 12 team PPR league, only quirk is 1 pt per 25 return yards, starts 2RBs+2WRs+1Flex+1 of everything else... I'm going to be the underdog for sure, so guys with the higher risk/upside will probably be preferred if it's a close call. It'd be great if you can pick me out some diamonds!
1 of these QBs: Matt Stafford(*) @ ARZ, Russell Wilson(*) @ BUF
2 or 3 of these RBs: Shonn Greene(*) or Bilal Powell(*) @ TEN, Pierre Thomas(*) or Mark Ingram vs TB, Montell Owens(*) @ MIA, Alex Green(*) @ CHI, Robert Turbin @ BUF, Montario Hardesty vs WAS, LaMichael James @ NE, Bernard Pierce vs DEN.
Looking to get David Wilson on waivers as another option (he's @ ATL).
2 or 3 of these WRs: D.Bryant(*) vs PIT, Pierre Garcon(*) @ CLE, Jeremy Maclin or Jason Avant vs CIN (Maclin would be another waiver option), Chris Givens or Brandon Gibson or D.Amendola(*) vs MIN, Brian Hartline(*) or Davone Bess vs JAX, Rod Streater Vs KC, Andre Hawkins @ PHI, Donnie Avery @ HOU, Jeremy Kerley @ TENM
1 of these Ds: Chicago(*) vs GB, Detroit @ ARZ, Miami vs JAX, Tennessee vs NYJ, St. Louis vs MIN
Mike: Arizona has a surprisingly good pass defense. Combined with the inherent risk of a dud from Stafford, I think Wilson is a safe but relatively low-upside start.
Tom: Arizona's pass defense hasn't been lit up lately in DVOA terms, but they've alternated good games with more average ones after a strong start. Given Buffalo's defensive resurgence (see the Lock of the Week section) and Seattle's desire to run the ball, I think Stafford is the better play.
Mike: Resurgence is way too strong a word. Non-embarrassment is probably more accurate.
Tom: Eh, he asked for upside. Stafford has more upside. Running back ... this is ugly.
Mike: On the upside, I can definitely rule out starting three of those players.
Tom: Only three of them?
Mike: No, I can't find three that are worth starting!
Tom: Yeah, me neither. If you get David Wilson off waivers, go ahead and start him. Beyond that, uh ... Pierre Thomas has PPR value if Brees has another game like last week. Owens is Jacksonville's lead back now. I guess I'd go Wilson, Owens, and Thomas in that order.
Mike: I would take Thomas over Owens, honestly. If you're going for upside.
Tom: I kind of see Thomas's upside as getting seven catches like he did last week.
Mike: I see Owens' upside as "being employed by the Jacksonville Jaguars."
Tom: He had 91 yards of rushing, a touchdown, and one catch for 11 yards last week. The Jets have a slightly better defensive DVOA than the Dolphins, though the Dolphins are better against the run. At wide receiver, I don't trust Dez Bryant to play or to play well, even with a potentially attractive matchup. Maybe I'm overreacting to what a finger injury means for a wide receiver. I do like Pierre Garcon as an option, what with Robert Griffin and the possibility of the big play. Danny Amendola is also potentially a very nice PPR play.
Mike: It's really hard to vote against Bryant. He is a top-five receiver in many formats. On the other hand, he's injured and the Steelers pass defense has looked good lately.
Tom: If he's playing, I guess you do have to play him.
Mike: However, he's going for upside, and there's a chance that the finger won't bother him much, and Ike Taylor is sitting out, so he has a rare opportunity. If he plays, you have to start him. I also really like Amendola. Minnesota's pass rush has basically disappeared, and that means open season on their rather porous secondary. It's not pretty. I would also really like to recommend Davone Bess, but I just can't. I want to recommend Maclin, but he's injured and fairly marginal even after a couple of strong performances. Screw it. Bryant, Amendola, Bess. Garcon if Bryant doesn't play.
Tom: Bryant, Amendola, Garcon, and I actually like Hartline a little more than Bess(even in PPR) if you bench Bryant. Tight end: if you can get over starting a Chiefs player, Tony Moeaki isn't an awful play.
Mike: Moeaki is a fantastic play. Oakland is terrible against tight ends.
Tom: The other one to consider is Benjamin Watson. The Redskins are giving up volume to opposing tight ends. I'd still lean Moeaki, though.
Mike: Many will look at Seattle's defensive total last week and salivate over Detroit this week. Do not do this! Seattle played a great game, but fantasy defense games like that are an aberration, and Detroit's defense is actually quite bad.
Tom: Detroit's secondary pretty much stinks, but Arizona doesn't have the quarterbacking to take advantage of it. I still think Detroit, which has a big advantage on the lines, is a good play.
Mike: Jacksonville's offense is nearly as bad as Arizona's and Miami has an above-average defense. Plus, Arizona's passing game will be on lockdown after last week's display. They won't score much, but neither will Detroit's defense. So, all things being equal, go with Miami.
Tom: So what? Arizona couldn't run the ball against the Seahawks last week, and they couldn't run it against the Jets the week before either.
Mike: Yes, but that doesn't do much for your defense in fantasy terms.
Tom: Not giving up points is cool.
Mike: Running plays remove the possibility of sacks. Many leagues do not give points for not giving up points, and Detroit's defense isn't to be trusted to get anything resembling a shutout even if the league in question does. So, from a fantasy scoring perspective, you're basically hoping for fumbles.
Tom: I think you can reasonably start Miami defense, but I'd still go with Detroit.
Tom: Well, Mike, I let you get away with one. You picked the Falcons to win and cover. They did not. I considered picking the Panthers, but didn't go up against you. I considered the Patriots, but didn't trust DVOA. I trusted the Bengals. That proved to be a mistake. With both of us failing last week, you retain your 1.5 game lead over me with only three weeks to go in the season. As a reminder, all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing. All picks are made without reference to FO's Premium picks for the week.
Mike: Stupid fraudulent Falcons.
Tom: I know. If only we'd had some way of knowing the Falcons might be fraudulent, like they were winning lots of close games in which they didn't play that well or something!
Tom: Yes, anyway.
Mike: I'll go with Seattle Seahawks -5 at Buffalo Bills. The Seahawks are a good team. They're not a great team, but they're on the cusp of being great, and the Bills are basically bad from every angle. Buffalo's offense is below average and its defense is abysmal.
Tom: I'd like to apologize to last week's lines for complaining about them.
Mike: A below-average offense against the second-best defense in the league. The seventh-worst rushing defense against Seattle's third-ranked rushing offense.
Tom: The Seahawks are really good. The Bills aren't good, but they're not that incredibly awful, and the defense has been playing better lately. Plus, Fred Jackson is hurt, so they have one less excuse for not giving C.J. Spiller more work.
Mike: Marshawn Lynch and his terrible publicity photo are going to completely eat the Bills.
Tom: The Bills actually have had a negative run defense DVOA for each of their six games since the bye week. I think Seattle -5 is actually a pretty fair line.
Mike: They will never run out of excuses to not give Spiller more work.
Tom: And thanks to the NFL and their suspensions, they have one! I promise this isn't a reaction to last week's result. But honestly, I'm having a lot of trouble finding a game I really like this week. There are two that look potentially attractive to me. Both involve our teams. I've basically sworn not to pick a Titans game this year. That leaves me instead with Dallas Cowboys +1.5 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers. After that terrible performance against San Diego, I have no confidence in Pittsburgh's ability to get a pass rush against offensive lines they should be able to destroy. In a week with few good options, that's my favorite one. Sorry, Mike.
Mike: I don't have confidence in their ability to even annoy bad offensive lines, so you won't get any argument from me.
Tom: Thank you. We'll see next week how our picks worked out.
27 comments, Last at 13 Dec 2012, 7:03pm by Karl Cuba