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?
30 Sep 2005
by Bill Moore
(Ed. note: Before we get started, I have to thank Bill -- not just for doing work to help me organize the game charting project in the preseason, but for essentially taking over the project when I had to deal with my father's passing three weeks ago.)
â€œTy Law is the kind of shut-down corner that quarterbacks are afraid to testâ€? - Brent Jones, CBS Announcer, during the Jetsâ€“Jaguars game 9/25/05
In his 10 years with the New England Patriots, Ty Law was one of the most feared cornerbacks in the NFL. But three things occurred in 2004 that either directly or indirectly slowed him down. First came the decision to re-emphasize the five-yard illegal contact rule. The â€œTy Law Ruleâ€? seemed to be specifically targeted toward his kind of physical play. Second, Law turned 30, a feared age among most NFL players not named Jerry Rice. Finally, and most influentially, Law broke his foot on October 31 in Pittsburgh. Although initially expected to return by the playoffs, it ended up taking 10 months before Law was cleared to play again.
This off-season, after being released by the Patriots, Law signed with the New York Jets, whose defense in 2004 was, at least according to Football Outsiders, not that good. According to DVOA (explained here), the rush defense was ranked a solid 5th, but the pass defense was ranked 24th. Last year's addition of rookie Erik Coleman was a positive for the secondary, as his coverage of running backs and tight ends was respectable. But results against wide receivers were just terrible. When DVOA was split by receiver type, New York's defense ranked 28th against both number one and number two receivers.
The expectations placed on Law were high for someone who hadn't played since Last October. Yet his reputation must have preceded him. In his 2005 season preview, Cris Carter named Ty Law and Ed Reed the â€œbest in the business.â€? He noted, â€œLaw gives the Jets the flexibility at any point in the game to take any wide receiver out of the opposing team's game plan. With Law in the game, the Jets can double the other side and try different things with blitz packages.â€?
By opening day, Law was declared to be about 90%, but 9/10ths of the Law was billed to be better than your average cornerback. I was curious if that was true.
As Ron Jaworski would say, let's go to the tape. Thanks to a new project at Football Outsiders, a number of volunteers have begun charting every NFL game to capture more information than we can get from traditional stats. One of many new features we track is the defender of the target of each pass. As a result, we'll be able to track whom quarterbacks are picking on, and whom they are avoiding. I combined that information with actual video of the Jets games to watch Ty Law in action.
The Chiefs don't have the most dangerous wide receiving corps, since much of their high octane offense goes through tight end Tony Gonzalez. Law started out playing pretty tight coverage on the right side, and quarterback Trent Green avoided him but buried left cornerback David Barrett. Green didn't miss a connection until 12 minutes to go in the second quarter, and that first incompletion was a drop by Larry Johnson. Barrett alone was specifically thrown at eight times in the first three quarters with six completions; the only two incompletions were thrown too far ahead for the receiver to catch. Green hardly ever looked Law's way. It took a full quarter before he threw that way at all, and Law's first real action was a let down. Unable to contain Eddie Kennison, Law grabbed him, resulting in a 20-yard pass interference call.
With five minutes to go in the second quarter, Law, while covering another receiver, baited Green into throwing a bad pass and picked it off in the end zone. Green was quoted after the game, â€œTy Law is a vet; he baited me into it and I had Eddie [Kennison] on a flat route and [Law] just fell off. He baited me into making that throw. They caught us off-guard on that play. I should have just thrown it away.â€? Ah, a wily veteran up to his old tricks.
Law wasn't thrown at again until late in the third quarter when he was playing loose coverage on Kennison, who caught a three-yard slant and ran for a total of a 12-yard gain. Law left the game midway through the fourth quarter when the Jets were down 27-0. No need to get hurt in your first game in almost a year.
So in the end, Law was only thrown at twice, and both resulted in positive gains for the offense, but he did make a nice move in the end zone for an interception.
On Miami's first offensive series, I noticed something that I had seen recurring in the Kansas City game. Although Law had made some nice hits in that game, there were a number of instances where Law made little effort to get through a block or attempt more than a lame arm tackle. Miami's second play was a second-and-1 right end run by Ronnie Brown. Law, who had correctly broken off his coverage, could easily have stopped Brown very close to the first down line; however, he threw a weak arm tackle at him, and Brown gained another six yards.
Quarterback Gus Frerotte showed early that Miami was unafraid of testing Law. Seven of the Dolphins' first eight plays were directed Law's way, including four of their first five passes. Three completions totaled 26 yards. The only incompletion was an overthrown pass by Frerotte in the corner of the end zone. With Miami threatening on the Jets' 15-yard line, Law gave Chris Chambers a big cushion, and Miami took advantage of it with a flat pass to get a first down, with Chambers easily slipping Law's arm tackle. Yet Ty Law's tackling ability is inconsistent, not poor. He made a nice hit one play later on tight end Randy McMichael, keeping him out of the end zone and ultimately forcing Miami to settle for a field goal. Ironically, Law didn't get official credit for the tackle.
Law, who had been playing loose coverage for much of the game, saw the first test of his tight coverage on a 16-yard attempt to Chambers. Close to the sideline, Law did a nice job positioning his body to block the pass.
Miami started the third quarter by attacking Law. With Law in loose coverage on tight end Lorenzo Diamond, Frerotte threw the quick pass, and Law couldn't adjust. He was burned so badly that he didn't even assist on the tackle. Two passes later, Frerotte threw to Chambers, but Law was called for defensive holding. Yet another throw went to Chambers, who was open but dropped the ball. The Dolphins targeted Law with the long ball with two minutes to go in the third quarter. He was covering McMichael on the outside, but McMichael turned inside before Law could react for a 20-yard reception. Covering Marty Booker later in the fourth quarter, Law showed he could get the inside position and defensed a 20-yard pass. Frankly, Law should have picked it off, but he dropped it. For the rest of the game, up by 10, Law played 5-10 yards off the line of scrimmage.
In the end, Law was officially thrown at 11 times out of Miami's 46 attempts, with seven completions. As a measure of quality of the entire Jets secondary, of the five incomplete passes considered to be â€œdefensed,â€? Law did account for three. Nevertheless, the Dolphins showed they were not afraid to go Law's way, by air or by ground.
Much like in the Kansas City game, Law was not tested much, since Jacksonville found success running the ball or going the opposite way. Law covered the right side of the field, usually covering Jimmy Smith or Reggie Williams. Halfway through the first quarter, Jacksonville finally sent a run in Law's direction. He was easily blocked, and although given credit for the tackle, he never touched Fred Taylor, who compliantly ran out of bounds. Byron Leftwich didn't test Law until late in the first quarter when Smith boxed him out on an 8-yard inside throw. Law grabbed Smith, who had a clear lane for extra yards after the catch, prior to the reception and was called for pass interference. Other than on a last-second hail mary that he knocked down, Law wasn't tested again in the quarter. However, with the play going to the other side, Law tried to jam Smith at the line but was flagged for defensive holding and offsides on the same play.
In the second half and overtime, Leftwich threw in Law's direction four times, connecting on all four. On three of the four, Jacksonville capitalized on loose coverage by Law and threw underneath him. The fourth was completed to Williams despite tight coverage. Similarly to Smith's move earlier, Williams had the inside position on Law and took down a 23-yard pass.
In total, Law was thrown at six times with five completions and a pass interference call. He did not break up a single pass.
In all three games, receivers were 12-of-16 plus three interference calls against Ty Law for a total of 167 yards. Nine of the 19 plays against him resulted in a first down. Four of those came on third down and one on fourth. Another seven resulted in successful plays as defined by Football Outsiders. Of the four incomplete passes, one was dropped, one was thrown in the end zone over the head of the receiver, and two were legitimately broken up by Law. To his credit, he did make a veteran move in the end zone and baited Trent Green into throwing an interception.
Are quarterbacks afraid to test Ty Law, or are they satisfied feasting off of other members of the Jets' secondary? The evidence suggests they shouldn't be afraid, and most did not appear to be so. Teams have had success running the ball against the Jets. In three games, the Jets VOA against the run, once a strong point for the Jets D, has been a poor 6.9%. On the other hand, the pass defense has so far recorded a respectable VOA of â€“7.7%. That flip-flop would suggest the Jets secondary has rapidly improved from 2004. But that's not the whole story. Breaking it down by receivers shows the following:
#1 wide receivers have had good success against the Jets secondary, whereas #2 receivers have done fairly poorly. Running backs fared even worse as the Jets' linebackers and safeties have done a good job containing backs coming out of the backfield. Having played KC and Miami, it is no surprise that the greatest number of plays have gone through the tight end, and have yielded above average returns. Both teams have offenses featuring a strong tight end (Gonzalez and McMichael).
The variance between #1 and #2 receivers is the most interesting. Law and Barrett essentially split the field rather than match up on particular receivers. Law plays the right side and Barrett the left. If you break out plays thrown at Ty Law, receivers recorded an aggregate 10.6% VOA against him. Although the sample sizes are small, by game statistics alone, Law had an excellent first game driven solely by the limited number of throws and the one interception. Against Miami, Law had a poor game. Against Jacksonville, he had a disastrous game. Honestly, who gives up that many completions to the likes of Reggie Williams (2004 DVOA â€“36.3%), Ernest Wilford (-5.4%) and TE Brian Jones (-35.5%)? Although I did not calculate the VOA for Barrett, it could not have been good either. The strength of the secondary unit is clearly safeties Coleman and rookie Kerry Rhodes.
Admittedly, Ty Law is working in a new defensive scheme, and this is only his fourth week of action since October of last year. I expect he will improve as the season progresses. However, his reputation clearly exceeds reality in its current state. At first glance, it appears that quarterbacks are reluctant to throw his way, but I believe they are seeing plenty of opportunities in other parts of the Jets' defensive scheme. Frankly, quarterbacks have achieved success when they have picked on Law, and Miami in particular (hardly an offensive powerhouse) proved that teams are willing to throw his direction. Yes, Law's 11 years' worth of experience is an asset that will work in his favor from time to time. But it doesn't change the fact that either his foot is not 100% healed or he has actually lost a step. Law is not the shut down corner that his reputation indicates.
We will not likely see a serious test of his abilities until November when the Jets travel to Carolina. Prior to then, the Jets either face weak or inexperienced quarterbacks, or their opponents have multiple offensive weapons with which to attack different parts of the secondary. In Carolina, I expect Law will have the task of covering Steve Smith, and Jake Delhomme will be forced to challenge him.
33 comments, Last at 01 Oct 2005, 5:34pm by Led