Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
31 Oct 2012
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Mike: In a year where the elites of the NFL are suddenly very vulnerable, one team in particular has been singled out for repeated scorn.
Tom: Friend of FO Chase Stuart, who used to write for Pro-Football-Reference's blog and now maintains his own site, Football Perspective, noted on Twitter yesterday that the New Orleans Saints lost an All-Pro guard (Carl Nicks) in the offseason and nobody's talking about it.
Mike: Nobody talks about guards not named Steve Hutchinson
Tom: I immediately responded that, well, the Saints signed a Pro Bowl (or at least pretty good) guard in Ben Grubbs as a replacement. Then I checked something. The Saints were great in Adjusted Line Yards last year in every direction except right tackle, where they were still average. This year, things have changed. A higher percentage of runs are going up the middle, 69 percent instead of 58 percent. And the Saints have gone from 4.94 ALY on runs up middle, which was first in the league, to 3.77, which ranks 24th. Maybe there's something to that idea after all.
Mike: Sadly, our resident line expert has not taken an in-depth look at the Saints offensive line this year, so information is scarce. On the other hand, running 70 percent in one direction makes your team very predictable, so another possible explanation is that other teams have caught on to the Saints' dedication to running up the gut and have simply stacked the middle or employed more aggressive run blitzes. Predictable is stoppable, even for a bad defense.
Tom: They're actually second in terms of frequency of runs up the middle, slightly behind your Steelers at 71 percent. It's also worth noting that only two teams have called fewer run plays than the Saints. (Yes, part of that is they've already had their bye. Aren't you clever for mentioning that.)
Mike: I think part of that is that they've ... yes. The really quirky bit about this is that New Orleans has enjoyed phenomenal Power success, 87 percent, second-best in the league. For a team mediocre at running up the middle, they are great at pounding the ball through. Which seems very un-Saints-like.
Tom: I wonder how many Power plays they've had. They finished 12th in Power last year. My eye remains focused on Mark Ingram.
Mike: Unblinking and wreathed in flame, I'm sure.
Tom: To the extent that Ingram is a between the tackles back and not as good as Pierre Thomas (averaging 1.5 yards per carry less and has a DVOA 15.2% worse), the Saints are running the ball up the middle too much to try to establish an identity. They traded up into the first round to take Ingram, even though they had a perfectly effective rushing attack when they had less than five backs injured. (Yes, I remember the Seahawks playoff game. Julius Jones was OK. They were only playing Jones because they were ridiculously injured at running back.)
Mike: I wonder how much of this was Aaron Kromer trying very hard to not be Sean Payton. Attributing it to Kromer's influence might make sense, being an offensive line coach.
Tom: I wonder. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael was still calling the plays. They promoted Kromer specifically so they didn't have to change that.
Mike: While that is true, calling the plays is different from deciding the run/pass and situational play-calling. Unfortunately, there's really no way to know whether this theory has any merit. It's also not just running, although we got a bit caught up on that. The Saints' passing DVOA is 25.5%, tenth in the league, compared to 2011's tally of 50.1%, good for third-best in the league.
Tom: We, or at least I, touched a bit on that in our preseason over/unders.
Mike: It's true. And I didn't really buy into your theory that Sean Payton has magic beans that make the Saints offense work, but this is basically the same team as last year, and here we are. It's starting to look like I was wrong.
Tom: They're actually better than they were in 2010. It's weird. We had what seemed like valid personnel-related reasons to think last year's Saints were different and better, with the additions of Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham. Sproles is within shouting distance of precisely as valuable a receiver as he was last year, though he's a much less efficient runner. Graham, meanwhile, has been very inefficient, with his catch rate plummeting from 66 percent to 58 percent, he ranks 39th (of 50) in DVOA among tight ends. Obviously some of that may be injury related.
Mike: But still a pretty good fantasy option!
Tom: Yup. He's still fifth in targets, even with the injury issues.
Mike: But yes, not tremendously valuable to the actual Saints football team.
Tom: Perhaps. As we've written before, though, DVOA can be an imperfect guide to player quality.
Mike: I suppose the question is, then, will things snap back under Joe Vitt? Is this really a coaching issue at all?
Tom: Vitt is the linebackers coach. Unless there are actual technical issues with the offensive line, I doubt Kromer's return changes things.
Mike: True, but he was chosen for a reason, and my guess is it's because he is the most in-sync with Payton's coaching style and methodology. Although that reason may also have been "the only qualified guy left." But as it is, your earlier assessment about the Saints seems to be eerily and completely counter-intuitively correct.
Tom: Even a blind dog finds a bone once in a while. I'll savor this victory while it lasts.
Tom: Autodrafted Second Round Quarterback Matthew Stafford finally had a great game!
Mike: Everything's coming up dudebro!
Tom: It didn't help much in the end, though, as my opponent had five players score in double-digits and won by almost five points. His key decision was starting Andrew Luck instead of Philip Rivers, so Luck beat both my fantasy and actual teams this week.
Mike: That is possibly a gutsy call.
Tom: Yahoo! actually projected Luck to score more points than Rivers last week, so I'm not sure how gutsy it really was. We saw on Monday Night Football in Kansas City a while back what rain does to Rivers' play, so starting Luck made some sense.
Mike: I'm not sure Rivers has done much better out of the rain, honestly.
Tom: Well, Cleveland doesn't have a great pass defense. Playing him would have been far from clearly wrong. Since it came up in an earlier column, I'll point out Yahoo!'s projections were amazingly accurate this week. I had 99.18 compared to 99.24 projected, while my opponent had 103.98 compared to 103.83. Obviously there's a great deal of individual volatility involved, but on the whole that's pretty good.
Mike: Yahoo!'s projections are very consistent for me. Consistently 20 points above actual performance. Including this week.
Tom: The fault, dear Mike, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
Mike: Luckily for me, my opponents also performed poorly, and I managed to eke out wins in both leagues, albeit one by fewer than two points. I actually did start Rivers, which wasn't great. And Victor Cruz, who had an off night, and Hakeem Nicks due to a bye week, who didn't actually benefit from Cruz's lack of productivity. Instead, it was guys like Mike Williams and Shonn Greene that carried the day. Oh, and the New York Football Giants' DST, with a whopping 22 points.
In the other league, I wisely started Ben Roethlisberger over Robert Griffin, and reaped the benefits of that. Very bad days from Vincent Jackson and Jeremy Maclin threatened to sink me, but Jimmy Graham came through and I won a nail-biter when David Akers only managed eight points in San Francisco's rout of the Cardinals.
Tom: And assuredly your team's clutchness for pulling out a close win won't be respected in the standings.
Mike: Considering I'm still last? No. I am in a four-way tie for best record in the other league, however, so there's hope for at least one of my squads.
Tom: Well, I'm pretty much still hopeless, so good luck to you.
QUARTERBACK: It was actually a pretty good week for the league's signal-callers. Brandon Weeden was still an unsurprising last, but with a respectable 6 points.
RUNNING BACK: LeGarrette Blount was last with 1 point, while DeAngelo Williams (without fumble) and Reggie Bush (with fumble) were your runners-up at 3 points each.
WIDE RECEIVER: Too bad for the Lions Scramble posts Wednesday, as they might have reconsidered their decision to trade for Mike Thomas if they realized he only had 1 point last week. Joining him there were Brandon Stokley and Jerome Simpson.
KICKER: Greg Zuerlein and Phil Dawson got to 1 the traditional way, by playing on teams that had terrible offensive performances that let them attempt an extra point but not a field goal. Nick Folk got there the Jets way, by missing one of the two field goals he attempted.
KEEP CHOPPING WOOD: One, two, three, four, five ... middle linebacker Colin McCarthy appeared to be counting how many players the Tennessee Titans defense were fielding on a crucial third-and-10 play while holding a 13-6 lead in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the Colts. He stopped at 10. The Colts picked up nine yards that play and lined up for a crucial fourth-and-1. The Titans substituted, but McCarthy's counting efforts the prior play were in vain. The Titans still had 10 players on the field, and the Colts converted fourth down easily and then tied the game up before winning in overtime. It's not clear which player was at blame on either play, or even that it was necessarily the same player, but either way they committed a major oopsie.
MIKE MARTZ AWARD: Hey, Andy Reid, how did that "firing Juan Castillo" thing work out? It turned out to be about as meaningful as your "perfect record coming off a bye week?" Huh, who ever saw that one coming!?
jkdalrymple: Trade Advice: I would trade Adrian Peterson for Brandon Marshall and Alex Green. I have Trent Richardson, Reggie Bush, Brandon Lloyd, Anquan Boldin, Brandon Pettigrew, Hawkins [I hope Andrew Hawkins rather than Lavelle Hawkins], William Powell, and Cedric Benson. Good deal?
Tom: In the absence of somebody specifying, we assume you're in a standard 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 flex, non-PPR league.
Mike: Yes, with those assumptions I say no. You're pretty good at wide receiver and you have two great and one pretty good running back that you can play matchups with.
Tom: And if you do this deal, your running back corps is very thin. Alex Green is getting 20-to-22 carries per game, but has put up 65, 35, and 54 yards rushing the last three weeks, with no touchdowns. It's like Chris Johnson without the random upside.
Mike: Moving Peterson would not only disrupt that, but the Browns still have to play Pittsburgh and Baltimore this season, twice each. And Reggie Bush might remember that he is Reggie Bush, although that is becoming less likely as we go.
Tom: You've seen Reggie Bush's name elsewhere in this column. Keep that in mind.
Mike: Right, there is also the problem that Marshall and Green simply aren't worth one Peterson. Marshall is the top dog receiver in Chicago, sure, but Chicago's passing offense just isn't great anyway. Pass.
Tom: Last week, we both did a marvelous job of picking "road" teams. You took the Patriots -7. They covered. I took the Raiders +2. They beat the Chiefs in a game actually played in the opposing team's home stadium. You are 4-3. I am 3-4. As a reminder, all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.
Mike: Bears at Titans is a fairly attractive line, just because I think the Bears defense will eat Tennessee for lunch. To clarify, I do not believe Chicago will have another defensive touchdown this week. Everyone expecting that to be a regular occurrence is insane. That said, I just don't trust Chicago's offense to give them four on the road.
Tom: You don't have to trust the offense. You just have to trust the Titans defensively.
Mike: Instead, I'm going to re-jump on the bandwagon and give a measly four points to a Broncos team that is better than the Bengals in nearly every way. Sure, it's on the road, but Peyton Manning does not care. Denver Broncos -4 at Cincinnati Bengals.
Tom: There were a couple lines that stood out to me as potentially fairly attractive. You took one of them. We've already mentioned another. For the second straight week, the line is roughly 3 points more favorable to the Titans from the one I would have set. Given we already know the Steelers will be without Troy Polamalu, it's probable the Giants playing at home should be favored by more than 3.5.
Mike: You're going to be that guy who always bets against his team, aren't you?
Tom: I didn't pick the Titans last week, and I'm not picking them this week either. I'm not picking against your team either. While I believe DVOA speaks truth when it's telling us the Falcons are not the league's best team, I don't believe the Cowboys are anywhere close to the league's best team either. Playing at home, they should be favored by more than they are. Atlanta Falcons -4.5 vs. Dallas Cowboys.
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22 comments, Last at 23 Jan 2013, 1:58pm by Michael Perry