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?
19 Nov 2009
by Mike Tanier
Grandma's slogan -- "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything" -- was terrible advice for an Internet sportswriter. If I could only say nice things, the average Walkthrough would be 200 words long, the New York Times capsules would be as entertaining as a mutual fund abstract, and I would never even mention the Raiders.
Still, it's a good habit to write something nice about every team once in a while. It keeps me from lapsing into the "all snark, all the time" trap. It also forces me to do better research. I can find a dozen stats that show how bad the Rams are. But if I can find one good stat, it gives me more insight into what the team is doing right and how they can move forward. It also slows the flow of angry emails from any given fanbase.
This week's Walkthrough is a simple exercise: I say something nice about every team in the league. That nice "something" must be tangible: a statistic, in most cases. For an extra challenge, I tried to avoid obvious choices, so I didn't write about Calvin Johnson or Nnamdi Asomugha. Some remarks are nicer than others, but even with a little bit of damning faint praise in the mix, this is still the most optimistic column you'll read all week:
(Note: Not all DVOA splits are updated through Week 10, but all raw stats are.)
Team: Buffalo Bills
Something Nice: The Bills defense leads the league with 762 combined tackles.
Analysis: Ah, the backhanded compliment. For a defense to generate a lot of tackles it has to be on the field a long time, meaning that it isn't doing a good job. It helps if the offense cannot sustain drives, forcing the defense stop extra possessions, and if opponents sit on a lot of late leads, creating many tackle opportunities on up-the-middle handoffs. The Bills meet all these criteria. They racked up 65 combined tackles in the loss to the Titans, great news if you have Paul Posluszny in an IDP fantasy league but bad news if you want the Bills to be competitive.
Team: Miami Dolphins
Something Nice: The Dolphins have the best third-and-short DVOA in the league.
Analysis: The Dolphins are 21-of-23 on rushing conversion on 3rd-and-short (two or less) and 7-of-10 on passing conversions. They average 4.75 yards per play on third-and-short. Ricky Williams has seven first downs and 54 yards on 11 third down-carries, so he should be able to pick up the slack for Ronnie Brown for a week or two.
Team: New England Patriots
Something Nice: The Patriots have the best second-down offensive DVOA in the league.
Analysis: Tom Brady completes 72.6 percent of his second down passes. Laurence Maroney's 30 second down carries have produced 10 first downs, three touchdowns, and a 45-yard run. The Patriots are 16-of-22 on second-and-short conversions, so they don't waste a lot of plays in this "take a shot" situation.
Team: New York Jets
Something Nice: The Jets lead the league in DVOA when winning big: -62.0% with a lead of eight or more points
Analysis: Sample size is a factor here; most of the plays in the Jets' "winning big" database occurred against the Raiders in a 38-0 blowout and in the season opener, when the Texans only had 183 totals yards in a 24-7 loss. Here's a more meaningful stat: The Jets are seventh in the league with a -11.9% DVOA when trailing by 1-7 points, so their defense usually does what it must to keep them in the game, even when the offense isn't cooperating. At some point, they should start turning their recent close losses into close wins again.
Team: Baltimore Ravens
Something Nice: The Ravens have the best red zone rushing DVOA in the NFL.
Analysis: The Ravens are second to the Cardinals in goal-to-go DVOA. Ray Rice has 18 carries for 85 yards (4.5 yards per carry) in the red zone. Willis McGahee has five touchdowns on 15 red zone carries.
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
Something Nice: The Bengals have the best first quarter DVOA in the league.
Analysis: Carson Palmer in the first quarter: 48-of-71 (67.6 percent), 564 yards, five touchdowns, one interception, and just one sack. The Bengals don't blow many opponents out early (they outscore opponents 48-34 in the first quarter), but even small leads allow them to stay balanced, which provides a big boost for an offense with few bells and whistles.
Team: Cleveland Browns
Something Nice: The Browns are the least penalized team in the NFL, with 43 penalties for 390 yards.
Analysis: Eric Mangini talked to Clark Judge at CBS Sports about penalties last week, explaining that the team hired former head of officiating Dick McKenzie to act as a practice referee. Smart move. The Packers should pay McKenzie double what the Browns offered.
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Something Nice: The Steelers allow just 4.7 yards per offensive play, the second lowest average in the league (The Jets allow 4.6 yards per play).
Analysis: The Steelers allow just 3.4 yards per rush and 6.3 yards per pass. The Bengals gained just 3.6 yards per offensive play last week; the Steelers would have won if their offense didn't match that figure.
Team: Houston Texans
Something Nice: The Texans have the second-best shotgun offensive DVOA in the NFL. The Texans rank fifth in the league with 7.3 yards per shotgun play.
Analysis: Ironically, the Texans rank 31st in the league in use of the shotgun; they use it in third-and-long and two-minute situations, the way teams used the shotgun 20 years ago. In one drive against the Colts two weeks ago, they converted third-and 5, third-and-7, and third-and-4 situations from the shotgun, gaining 69 of the drive's 84 yards on those three plays. Yes, small sample size might affect their high DVOA, but there's enough evidence to suggest that Gary Kubiak may want to try Matt Schaub in the gun in some other situations.
Team: Indianapolis Colts
Something Nice: The Colts have the best goal-to-go defense in the NFL according to DVOA.
Analysis: The Patriots were able to punch in a few short touchdowns, but they also fumbled at the goal line in one of the 75 most crucial plays of Sunday Night's game. The Texans also fumbled at the goal line. Forcing fumbles is a skill, but the Colts can't keep erasing points that way all season.
Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
Something Nice: Mike Sims-Walker is on a pace for 1,072 receiving yards.
Analysis: That would be the highest total since Jimmy Smith had 1,172 yards in 2004. By the way, if you are like me and forget the Jaguars exist sometimes, they are suddenly 5-4.
Team: Tennessee Titans
Something Nice: The Titans have allowed a league-low 19 quarterback hits.
Analysis: The Titans have also allowed just seven sacks, picking up where they left off last year (just 12 regular season sacks). The low sack total is one of several indicators that suggest the three-game winning streak is for real; the Titans dug too deep a hole to reach the playoffs, but they can be scary spoilers. I didn't want to use a Chris Johnson stat, but I can't resist: the Titans have 17 running plays of 20 yards or more, the highest total in the league by a wide margin.
Team: Denver Broncos
Something Nice: The Broncos have the second-best second half defensive DVOA in the league.
Analysis: They are also third in the NFL in late-and-close situations on defense. A stat that may or may not be meaningful: Ten of Elvis Dumervil's 11.5 sacks occurred in the second half, six of them in the fourth quarter.
Team: Kansas City Chiefs
Something Nice: The Chiefs have made 11 fourth-down conversions this season, most in the NFL. They are 11-of-17 on fourth down conversions.
Analysis: Fourth down conversion attempts are extremely situation dependent, so don't assume Todd Haley is some kind of wild fourth down gambler. His Chiefs just have attempted lots of desperate, end-of-game fourth downs. They were 1-of-3 on fourth downs against the Chargers in a blowout loss, 2-of-2 against the Eagles in a blowout loss, and so on. They were 1-of-2 against the Redskins, but the fourth-and-1 they converted was part of a stalled drive, so it had no effect on their win.
Team: Oakland Raiders
Something Nice: Sebastian Janikowski is perfect on field goals.
Analysis: Shane Lechler is also having a great year; I covered him extensively three weeks ago. Remember when Jon Gruden drafted Janikowski and Lechler? Drafting kickers and punters is a bad strategy in most cases. In Oakland, bad choices at the start of the decade become the best players on the roster at the end of the decade.
Team: San Diego Chargers
Something Nice: Chargers receivers average 13.3 yards per catch, the second highest total in the league (The Cowboys lead the league with 13.5).
Analysis: Vincent Jackson averages 17.0 yards per catch, Malcom Floyd 20.3 on 16 receptions. Darren Sproles averages 11.0 yards per catch, a high total for a running back. The per-catch numbers would be higher if LaDainian Tomlinson could gain more than 4.4 yards per reception, or if Jacob Hester, Michael Bennett, Brandon Manumaleuna and Kris Wilson weren't a combined 7-for-22. (Wilson's two-yard catch was a touchdown, so he's forgiven, but the other guys have to turn it upfield!)
Team: Dallas Cowboys
Something Nice: The Cowboys are tied for the league lead with 11 pass plays of 40 or more yards. The Eagles also have 11.
Analysis: Miles Austin, Patrick Crayton, Roy Williams and Sam Hurd have all contributed long pass plays. It almost makes their habit of ignoring their three-headed running game (averaging 5.1 yards per rush) forgivable. Almost.
Team: New York Giants
Something Nice: Opponents convert a league-low 31 percent of third downs (33 of 106) against the Giants.
Analysis: The Giants held the Chargers to 3-of-10 on third downs and the Cardinals to 3-of-14, so this figure isn't grossly inflated by junk-team data, though the Raiders (1-of-11) and Buccaneers (0-of-9) did make their statistical presence known.
Team: Philadelphia Eagles
Something Nice: The Eagles have the best second-down defensive DVOA in the NFL.
Analysis: DVOA shows the Eagles are just an average first-down defense. They are much better on second-and-long, as well as on third-and-short. That jibes with my observations: they are great at loading up to stop the run or blitzing the house on obvious passing downs, but they aren't as good when they don't know what's coming.
Team: Washington Redskins
Something Nice: Redskins opponents complete just 58.7 percent of their passes.
Analysis: Broncos quarterbacks combined to go 14-of-31 last week, though the Redskins defense fared much better against Chris Simms (3-of-13) than Kyle Orton (11-of-18, two long touchdowns). Matt Ryan was 17-of-24, and Eagles quarterbacks were 16-of-26, so there's a lot of Rams and Chiefs noise in the data. The Redskins pass defense DVOA isn't very good (21st through Week 9) due to the quality of opposition and the fact that they have just five interceptions, but many of their per-play defensive numbers are surprisingly good.
Team: Chicago Bears
Something Nice: The Bears have outscored opponents 113-67 in the second half.
Analysis: The Bears' problem is that opponents outscore them 59-20 in the first quarter and 134-70 in the first half. The Bengals took 31-3 on them in the first half, the Cardinals a 31-7 lead. A lot of their second half points are garbage touchdowns against the Cardinals, runaway scores in the 48-24 win over the Lions, and so on. The Bears offense would look much better if they didn't spend so much time playing catch-up.
Team: Detroit Lions
Something Nice: The Lions have a better third-down conversion percentage (38.8 percent) than their opponents (37.7 percent).
Analysis: Lions opponents have only been forced to convert 113 third downs, while the Lions have faced 156 of them. The Lions have to do a better job, in other words, of holding opponents on early downs. In their win over the Redskins in Week 3, the Lions were 11-of-18 on third down, the Redskins 2-of-10.
Team: Green Bay Packers
Something Nice: The Packers have the best "Deep Zone" defense in the NFL, according to DVOA.
Analysis: The "Deep Zone" is when an offense is caught behind its own 20-yar dline. Two Cowboys drives started in the Deep Zone against the Packers last week. One was a three-and-out, the other ended with the controversial fumble that led to a game-clinching touchdown. You never want to be pinned against your own goal line against a blitz-happy defense. The Packers Deep Zone offense is ranked 17th, which seems too high for a team that gives up a safety every time they face the Vikings.
Team: Minnesota Vikings
Something Nice: Percy Harvin averages 30.7 yards per kickoff return.
Analysis: Harvin has 1,357 yards of all-purpose yardage and has been effective as a receiver and runner. In other Vikings special teams news, Chris Kluwe has 19 kicks inside the 20 and only three touchbacks, while Ryan Longwell is 17-of-18 on field goals.
Team: Atlanta Falcons
Something Nice: Michael Koenen leads the league with 19 touchbacks, and opponent's kick returners net just 21.0 yards per return.
Analysis: All five of Koenen's kickoffs in Sunday's loss were touchbacks. The Falcons also have the best goal-to-go DVOA in the NFL. That will happen when you mix one part Michael Turner with one part Tony Gonzalez, with a pinch of Roddy White.
Team: Carolina Panthers
Something Nice: DVOA says the Panthers really are getting better.
Analysis: The Panthers have had positive total DVOA in three of the last four weeks. They haven't registered negative passing DVOA in a month, and their defense has graded out above average in every game since Week 5. Their rushing DVOA is always pretty good, though not as good as their raw numbers. It's great when DVOA confirms and quantifies observation: wins against the Cardinals and Falcons, plus a close loss against the Saints, show that the Panthers are the NFC's version of the spoiler-ready Titans.
Team: New Orleans Saints
Something Nice: The Saints are undefeated.
Analysis: Cheesy? How about this: the Saints' DVOA on third-and-medium (4-6 yards) is 137.7 percent. There are dozens of stats that demonstrate how good the Saints are. Here's another one: Drew Brees completes 79 percent of his passes in the first quarter, and he averages 10.1 yards per attempt in the fourth quarter. OK, that's two.
Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Something Nice: Conner Barth may be the team's kicker of the future.
Analysis: Before Barth made 50, 51, and 52 yard field goals against the Dolphins, the Bucs were 0-5 on field goals beyond 40 yards. The Bucs are a bad team, but they would have at least won one more game if Mike Nugent or Shaun Andrus could be counted on for occasional 45-yarders: for example, Nugent missed two kicks in the 16-13 loss to the Redskins.
Team: Arizona Cardinals
Something Nice: The Cardinals have the second-best offensive DVOA in the NFL when "winning small" (leading by 1-to-8 points).
Analysis: The Cardinals are very good at stepping on the accelerator once they have a lead, as the Bears learned two weeks ago and the Seahawks discovered at the end of Sunday's game.
Team: San Francisco 49ers
Something Nice: The Niners allow just 3.3 yards per rush and 87.7 rushing yards per game.
Analysis: Not bad for a team that has faced Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner, and a few other guys who can run the ball.
Team: Seattle Seahawks
Something Nice: Justin Forsett is averaging 6.6 yards per rush.
Analysis: Most of Forsett's production came last Sunday against the Cardinals (17 rushes for 123 yards), but Forsett showed flashes throughout the first half of the season. He had six catches for 57 yards against the Niners and 10 catches for 71 yards in the last two games, so when you factor in his kick return abilities, he has great potential as an all-purpose back.
Team: St. Louis Rams
Something Nice: The Rams are a good second-down rushing team.
Analysis: It was really, really hard to find something tangible and nice to say about the Rams. They rank 12th in the NFL in second-down rushing DVOA, and they also rank 13th in second-and-medium situations, which can be very good rushing downs. Steven Jackson averages 6.1 yards per carry on second down. I didn't want to use Jackson, but it was that or talk about the uniforms.
37 comments, Last at 26 Nov 2009, 1:28am by Flux