How did New England find the right combination of offensive linemen this season, and where are Seattle's biggest weaknesses in pass protection?
23 Oct 2013
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: Well, Mike, back before the season began, we both picked the Colts to go under their 8.5 over/under mark. Currently sitting with a record of 5-2 and atop the AFC South by a couple games, it looks like we were both wrong in that call. Hallowed tome Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 was in agreement, giving the Colts a mean projection of 7.8 wins. And here we stand, seven weeks in, and the Colts have the third-best DVOA in the league. Mike, do you agree with DVOA the Colts are the third-best team in the league?
Mike: I agree that they will win four more games. After all, they haven't played Tennessee, Arizona or Houston yet. On the other hand, they've squeaked by Oakland (4-point victory) and lost to Miami (by 4) and San Diego (by 10).
Tom: Such a weird resume. They have wins over Denver, Seattle, and a San Francisco team that's looking a lot better of late ... then, those three games that make them look pretty average. Surprisingly, they're just 13th in variance, while I expected them to be at the bottom of the league.
Mike: The interesting thing about Indy is that they have a fairly average passing offense, despite the screen time Andrew Luck has received. According to our numbers, they're winning thanks to a third-ranked rushing attack. A rushing attack that features 27th-ranked Trent Richardson, followed by some small sample size antics from Donald Brown and Ahmad Bradshaw.
Tom: Well, their passing offense DVOA is still better.
Mike: Still better than what?
Tom: Rushing offense DVOA. They're almost the same, but they're still more efficient passing, in absolute terms, than they are running. It's just there are more teams than them that are better at passing than there are teams better than them at running.
Mike: Well, no. The deviation for passing is much larger...
Tom: Sure. In relative terms, they're more powered by their run game.
Mike: ...so you really can't compare them in absolute terms.
Tom: In absolute terms, they're balanced.
Mike: But these statistical issues underpin my suspicion about Indianapolis.
Mike: The running game is powerful, but seems to be powered by a pair of previously underperforming running backs who have had great success in a very iffy sample size. The rushing defense is just as bad as last year, but suddenly a bottom-five passing defense is seventh in the league. It feels like a team playing as far more than the sum of its parts, which has always in my mind gone hand in hand with a team playing over its head.
Tom: Yeah. Rivers covered the surprisingly good defense for ESPN Insider a little while ago. That's what's surprised me the most. From the TV broadcast on Sunday, it seemed like Vontae Davis and Darius Butler, both guys who've failed to live up to their supposed physical talent levels in the past, seemed to be playing particularly well. Their only pass rusher is Robert Mathis, and he has 11 sacks. He's a guy who really stood out to me as a terrific all-around player when I first started watching games in real detail, but I don't expect him to come too close to breaking the single-season sack record.
Mike: Right. It's gone very well for the team thus far. It just doesn't seem sustainable. It's not how great defenses have been built in the past, and a few players are vastly exceeding expectations. The beauty of football is that there are so few games it might just happen! But I can't expect these results to continue.
Tom: I'm still ordinately fascinated by the NFC South. Maybe even inordinately fascinated. The Buccaneers are down to 24th in the latest version of DVOA.
Mike: Sadly, the Cardinals are in the West, so you can't be ordainedly fascinated.
Tom: We can talk about the Cardinals if you want, but between Thursday night and watching them for FOA2013, their offensive line makes me sad. I should point out they're somehow 10th in Adjusted Line Yards, including second in Power, and have posted an average Adjusted Sack Rate. With the Bruce Arians system. Somehow.
Mike: I don't think anybody wants to talk about the Cardinals, the Cardinals included.
Tom: Yes, let's move along. How do you feel about the Cowboys? They're 3-0 in the division and 1-3 outside it.
Mike: I thought you wanted to talk about the NFC South.
Tom: I decided the only interesting thing about the Buccaneers is whether they give up on the season. Atlanta's mix of injuries and offensive line woes make them not so good, so we should probably stop with the "we totally nailed this team" back-patting, even though we did. I want to see Carolina beat up on a good team the way they've beaten up on the Vikings, Giants, and the Rams (at home), so I'm reserving judgment on them. I know, Guts and Stomps and all that, but the question I have relates to coaching, preparation, and the mental side of the game that's so hard to measure. Beat the Bucs on the road on a short week, the Falcons at home, and play respectable at San Francisco, and we'll talk. But, yes, I'm ready to throw in the towel on Tampa Bay over 7.5. Notwithstanding what I think this team could have done in an alternate universe.
Mike: I think that's a somewhat harsh appraisal. Tampa still has a good defense, last week's stomping at the Falcons' hands notwithstanding. They lost very close games to the Jets, the Saints and Arizona, so they are hardly in Jacksonville territory.
Tom: Tell that to the fans who took defensive coordinator Mike Sheridan up on his offer to show up at 5:20 to the facility and were denied. I think their upside looks more like last year's Arizona: a potential wild card team undone by a disaster on offense. Especially now that Doug Martin may be out for the year.
Mike: I don't see the offense improving, unfortunately. Also, they only have 10 more games to play, so yeah, winning eight is ... unlikely.
Tom: I will note the 2009 Titans managed that feat. I was about the only person who expected that, but they made some real and effective changes (at quarterback, a change the Bucs have already tried, and at running back, where they stopped trying to pretend LenDale White was a viable alternative to Chris Johnson and the Bucs are, uh, going from Doug Martin to Mike James for injury-related reasons).
Mike: The real issue is that Carolina's offense is at least average. What we really need is a Cam Newton injury or something so that the NFC South can host the three worst offenses in the league. That would have to be some sort of record!
Tom: I feel like the NFC West probably accomplished that.
(Tom hits the books.)
Tom: Nope, just the bottom two with the Rams and 49ers in 2007. The 2010 Panthers ruined things, as the Seahawks, Rams, and Cardinals ranked 29-31. The 1992 AFC East had the 26th and 27th-ranked Colts and Patriots, while the AFC West had the 25th and 28th-ranked Broncos and Seahawks. The 1998 AFC West matched the 2007 NFC South, as the addition of Ryan Leaf failed to move the Chargers out of the basement, while the Raiders were runners-up.
Mike: Sadly, the Panthers ruined our dream. As they are ruining this year's dream!
Tom: Indeed. Going back to the Cowboys, we both picked them to go under a line of 8.5. I'm just uncertain about how good they are because of that division/out of division split.
Mike: I'm actually pretty high on Dallas right now. Which is something I never thought I'd say early on this year.
Tom: DVOA likes them, as they blew out the Rams, played Denver tough, and dominated the Redskins and Eagles. "Pretty high" as in "actually" high or as in "they're the best team in the NFC East" high? Or maybe just "somebody has to win the NFC East" high, a designation we both bestowed on the Redskins because we did not expect the defense would be this bad?
Mike: Actually high.
Tom: Okay. I like some of their talent, but I'm still just "somebody has to win the NFC East" high on them.
Mike: Well, the horrible state of the NFC East plays into it. But Dallas is finally a generally all-around above-average team.
Tom: Thirteenth in offense, 14th in defense by DVOA. The special teams have performed well, which is why they're ninth in DVOA.
Mike: Ninth in rush defense, and their passing defense numbers are 15th despite facing the Peyton Manning Experience as one of their seven games. I don't think they're going to win the Super Bowl, but this is a real football team.
Tom: Over 8.5, though?
Mike: I believe so. The rest of their division is bad, bad, bad.
Tom: You're probably right. I just need to see a little more before I'm convinced. A win in Detroit this weekend will help with that. And will also help convince me the NFC East winner will be better than 8-8.
Mike: Avalanches are the new explosions, apparently.
Tom: Actually, watching the making-of video, these avalanches are actually just the new instantiation of explosiveness. As these avalanches are actually created by a helicopter dropping explosives.
Mike: A stunt that Xzibit would be proud of.
Tom: This Coors Light ad campaign is not new, but lately it's just gotten to me. When I order a mass-produced beverage, I'm making an intentional trade-off: choosing something that's familiar and I know I like, and can be provided to me without too much hassle. Coors Light's ad campaign is ... that bars do not have sufficiently cold freezers to keep Coors Light fresh, so they must rely on experienced and skilled mountaineers to retrieve their beer and pass it through dimensional portals?
Mike: To be fair, Coors Light's only real selling point is "it's cold."
Tom: I know, one of the other commercials has the beer cans actually being filled by a dispenser in the side of a mountain.
Mike: Granted, it is only really as cold as the storage area in which it is kept.
Tom: Fortunately, we have amazing technology that lets us create cold spaces to store things. It's called a freezer. Or, as the case may be, a refrigerator.
Mike: It's interesting, actually, since the whole thing is a metaphor for their brewing process. But nobody cares about the brewing process, aside from what they've been saying for years (that it's cold-brewed).
Tom: If this commercial series had been about how they were making beer in arctic conditions, I'd probably approve of that.
Mike: They need something immediate to bridge the gap between cold beer and cold-brewed, which leads to absurdities like the three different things on the Coors Light cans that inform you how cold your beer is. The cynical among us will note that the colder a lager is, the thinner its taste. Not that we would accuse Coors of making beer that is nearly indistinguishable from water.
Tom: The ultra-cynical will point out that the beer snobs (which is what people who do not drink beer call people who like good beer) don't think Coors is a good beer and Coors is actually telling you how best to drink their not very good beer.
Mike: In any case, it would be interesting to see this sort of beer delivery system in action.
Tom: Coors after all is a cynical company that wants to extract profits from hapless idiot consumers. But, yes.
Mike: Ignoring that the Coors would almost certainly freeze in the conditions depicted.
Tom: Considering the number of establishments that could potentially sell Coors, they must have an incredible number of mountaineers and portals. The polar regions of the world must be replete with Coors-employed mountain men.
Mike: My main concern is how this would affect the cost of Coors. Coors cannot compete in the same price range as, say, Goose Island. Can a bottle of Coors Light compete with the price of a middling-to-large subatomic particle collider?
Tom: As a non-beer drinker, I know which one I'd rather have.
Mike: Everyone needs a particle accelerator. Everyone.
Tom: Yes. I'd also like to point out that the sun is shining in all of these Coors Light beer retrieval commercials. Apparently Coors Light is only available during arctic daylight hours. Then again, I guess you can get around that with antarctic facilities.
Mike: Lightning technically needs two, but she's always been greedy.
Tom: Well if Lightning needs two, then I don't want to know how many Thundarr needs!
QUARTERBACK: As ugly as Josh Freeman's night looked Monday, it comes as no particular surprise he is the low man in Loser League among quarterback this week. Once again, though, that Loser League score is a very respectable one, this time 7 points. The runner-up to Freeman for the week also played in the Meadowlands, as Tom Brady had 9 points.
RUNNING BACK: Since there is no actual judgment in noting which eligible running backs posted the lowest Loser League score, it's back to open season on Trent Richardson for Tom! Who ever thought you could get 14 carries for 37 yards and a fumble at the low, low price of just one measly first-round pick!? With twice as many points as T-Rich (2 as opposed to 1), another back who played his football in the Southeastern Conference: BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
WIDE RECEIVER: Davone Bess, Ryan Broyles, Larry Fitzgerald, Austin Pettis, and Kenbrell Thompkins each had precisely two receptions for between 11 and 17 receiving yards for 1 point.
KICKER: After setting an NFL record for the most field goals made from 50 yards and beyond last year, it was odd to see Blair Walsh leave even a 53-yarder short as he did against Monday night. The left hamstring injury that made him probable on the injury report seemed to affect Leslie Frazier's maroon zone fourth down decision-making the rest of the game, giving the Vikings yet another reason they have not been as successful in 2013 as they were in 2012. -1 point.
Keep Chopping Wood: Tennessee Titans return man Darius Reynaud had a 5-yard kickoff return, an 8-yard kickoff return, dropped a pass on third down, fair caught a punt with no one in his immediate vicinity, and muffed a punt San Francisco recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. All that, combined with misadventures earlier this season, was enough to make him a former Tennessee Titan on Monday.
Mike Martz Award: While on balance the NFL is a passing league and teams should pass the ball more than they throw it, there are exceptions to that general rule. One of those exceptions is when you have a particularly talented running back and a quarterback who has been on the team for about two weeks. Why, then, did Leslie Frazier or whoever actually made this decision call several times as many Josh Freeman passes as Adrian Peterson runs (16 v. 8 in the first half, 53 v. 13 for the entire game)?
Tom: For the second week in a row, a tragic result. The Buccaneers, with two field-goal drives down two scores in the fourth quarter, did enough to cover the nine-point spread in Atlanta, while the Bears lost the Redskins. Yes, I was right and you were wrong. As a reminder, all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing. All picks were made without reference to FO's Premium Picks.
Mike: I'm hanging my hat on the Cutler injury. I can't be held responsible for that.
Tom: No, you cannot. We will, however, hold you responsible for Chicago's inability to defend the cross off the bootleg, after you took up Mel Tucker on his Bill Sheridan-like offer.
Mike: Mea culpa. This week features a lot of huge lines. I count four above 10, and one of the games hits 17. That dampens my enthusiasm for a number of the games I would otherwise go for.
Tom: Yes. Multi-score lines are dreadful things.
Mike: Instead, I will piggy-back on our earlier discussion and opine that the Panthers and the Buccaneers are as two ships passing in the night. Granted, they're both in the middle of a bay without a lighthouse and heading straight toward opposite, rocky shorelines. But for the moment, Carolina has a very good defense, and Tampa's offense is putrid. Tampa's defense is still pretty good, but the Panthers have a real offense. I hate 7-point spreads, but I like Carolina Panthers -7 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Tom: Sadly, we do not have a current line for the aforementioned Dallas-Detroit contest that intrigues me so much. I'll take instead one of those multi-score lines that bothers me. Quarterbacks who presented a bit of an unknown threat have had initial success against Kansas City the last two weeks, then been completely shut down. Brandon Weeden presents no unknown threat, or even barely a threat. His processing speed and difficulty getting off a first read, plus the fact that he's not particularly mobile even in the pocket make him a sitting duck for a Chiefs defense playing like they have six first-round picks on the roster and, unlike last year, aren't playing for a coach who does nothing for them. Alex Smith still leads a popgun offense that keeps me a bit pessimistic on their long-run chances and even this week against a Ray Horton defense that could limit them. Still, I'll lay the points and take Kansas City Chiefs -9 vs. Cleveland Browns.
Obviously this pick was made before Jason Campbell was announced as the starter. This game is now off the board at Bovada, and Tom is waiting on that new line before deciding if this is his official pick.
evenchunkiermonkey: Hey guys, I have all kinds of injuries and bye weeks to deal so there's quite a few waiver pickups to make and not so many trades to consider as my fantasy bench has more red than Twitter's quarterly report. I'm really high on the prospects for Zac Stacy and Jarrett Boykin for pretty much the rest of the season. I like Stacey's prospects for the rest the year more than say Lamar Miller or Giovanni Bernard. I also have the feeling that Boykin will see 8-12 targets a game from here until Randall Cobb comes back. Am I crazy for thinking that Stacey could be a legit RB2 and Boykin could be a decent FLEX play?
Tom: Through about 2 p.m. Central Time Sunday, I was thinking Stacy could indeed be a viable fantasy option going forward. And a better option than Miller and Bernard, both of whom I like talent-wise, but who aren't getting the volume necessary to sustain them in fantasy terms. Then Sam Bradford tore his ACL. Based on what I've seen of his overall body of work, Kellen Clemens immediately becomes the worst quarterback currently starting in the NFL.
Mike: I think your instincts are right regarding Boykin. Even early on in the season, Rodgers was trying to feed the ball to Boykin when opportunities presented themselves. Unfortunately, early on those opportunities were missed, partially due to inexperience and partially due to growing pains in the offense. Which I suppose is a factor of inexperience, really.
Tom: Yes. I think Boykin was a long-term proposition that's been accelerated to a present-day option due to those injuries.
Mike: Agreed. In any case, the danger with Green Bay receivers is that you're always playing Rodgers Receiver Roulette. Injuries have tightened up your odds, to the point where I believe Boykin, with his increasing familiarity with Rodgers and the offense, is a perfectly cromulent flex option.
Tom: I think you'll see those growing pains continue, and the Packers will live with them. You'll certainly see Rodgers Receiver Roulette, but I'm growing used to the proposition that this is true with many receivers these days, even some ostensible team No. 1s you'd think would be more consistent than that. I'd throw Boykin in my lineup.
Mike: And I agree that Stacy has no place in said lineup.
Tom: Stacy with Clemens just scares me, as I don't see any part of the Rams offense being good enough to be successful on its own. Of course, we're far enough into the process that I've almost given up hope on the idea the Dolphins will realize Daniel Thomas isn't very good this week or next week in or four weeks. (And I say that as a Miller owner.) I wouldn't drop Stacy at this point, but my guess is your best bet going forward would be playing matchup roulette with the three backs.
Tom: Regardless of need, this is a tough question, and my answer is highly need-related. Boykin is a good option if you need immediate receiving help to get through bye weeks, but I don't like his long-term value. James is in a situation not too dissimilar from Stacy -- a moderately-talented back hamstrung by a bad offense thanks to some dismal quarterbacking (and thinking about it, Mike Glennon may be worse than Clemens).
Mike: I actually disagree, there. Boykin is worth keeping around even if you plan on socking him away and seeing where the next few weeks take him. I think he's a great midseason sale candidate. Worst case, he'll be worked into Rodgers' game more effectively; he was being targeted even before the (most significant) injury to Cobb. So you at worst have a bench guy with very high perceived upside because any week his quarterback might throw him all of the passes. That's a great sell to another owner who might have some desperate need.
Tom: See, I think James is the best back on Tampa with Martin out, and if the Bucs do figure out how to manufacture offense, he could get enough carries on a weekly basis he's worth playing over one of those committee backs we were just talking about. In the abstract, that's worth more to me than Boykin as a long-term proposition.
Mike: I think "if the Bucs do figure out how to manufacture offense" sums that position up succinctly.
Tom: In the specific, a bird in the hand is worth maybe two in the bush. You're probably better off with Boykin.
Keith: I'm new to Football Outsiders.com and I'm totally impressed with the wealth of information presented and the time it must take to gather that information. Am I able to use the info to help my fantasy football team? For example, can I look at the stats for defense and decide what WR or RB to put in my lineup (Wash. rush rank @ #25 so I play Matt Forte)? Also, are the RB stats for the second chart on the "Team Defense" tab for RB's who are active in the passing game (like Forte)? I know the first question might sound stupid, but I've noticed a defense might be ranked high in the first chart, but low in the second chart when broken down to covering individual players. If I can use these stats for FF, any other info would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for taking the time to answer my email. FootballOutsiders.com rocks!
Mike: First, I should note that this email isn't from any of our family members. Just to put that out there. The most important split our basic stats have are defense vs. type of receiver. Ignore cumulative pass defense entirely. Figure out the player's role in his offense and make sure that matchup works. Many teams that are good against a top receiver are bad against tight ends, for instance. Or vice versa.
Tom: That's my go-to, especially with tight ends when I don't have a premium player like Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski or need a bye week fill-in. Pay attention to both the DVOA and the numerical data. If teams throw an above-average number of passes to the tight end against that defense, it's probably a good idea to start him even if the DVOA may not be that great.
Mike: Or if your tight ends just suck, as many do. I think offensive line stats are also helpful for a number of positions, but are particularly helpful in vetting matchups for defense. Because you should be playing matchups on defense. A good defense vs. a bad offensive line creates all sorts of great things for a fantasy team, since sacks give points and sacks lead to turnovers which also give points which occasionally lead to touchdowns and safeties, which, again, score more points.
Tom: I also want to put in a plug for our Fantasy Matchups column. I know, it's on ESPN Insider, but it's our content. Information Wants to Be Free and all that, but you get Insider with an ESPN: The Magazine subscription, and it's fairly easy to find cheap deals for the Mag. I hate sounding like I'm selling, but you get a lot of content for a fairly modest price.
Mike: Capitalist pig-dog.
Tom: But that's really the best and most direct place to see where we quantify how players are affected in fantasy terms by schedule strength. If you subscribe to our Premium service, you can get that for your team specifically. Just make sure your submit your question in time for us to answer it. /End of selling.
Even our statistics, though, are no substitute for knowing a team, a player, and their roles. Use our statistics as a tool to make you smarter and your fantasy team better. But use your brain, don't just outsource your thinking to us.
Mike: Are you done?
Tom: Did you want me to continue?
Mike: God no.
Tom: See y'all next week then!
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