by Ned Macey
When two division leaders met in Chicago on Sunday, it was supposed to be a contest between a contender and a pretender. After a convincing 13-3 win by the Bears, Carolina is exposed as a team that has feasted on a weak schedule, and Chicago is starting to believe it has a chance to make noise in the playoffs.
The Bears are clearly among the best defenses in football, but the real story of the game was the incompetence of the supposedly potent Carolina offense. Conventional NFL statistics measure teams in two ways, by yards and by points. By yardage, Carolina has looked like a very average team, but they entered Sunday's game as the fourth highest scoring team in football.
The idea that Carolina was anywhere near the fourth best offense in football is laughable. Carolina's offense features one exceptional player, Steve Smith. Other than Jake Delhomme, the rest of the offense is clearly below average.
Points scored is a poor measure of the skill of an offense because it does not take into account special teams or, more importantly in Carolina's case, a stout defense that creates turnovers. With short fields to work with, the Panthers have managed to score a good deal more points than they would with an average defense.
Our advanced statistics (which are explained in depth here) try to take out the bias of points by measuring each play compared to the league average. DVOA gives most of the credit for a score on a drive starting in the opponent's territory to the defense. By this measure, Carolina entered last week's game as the 17th best offense in the league.
The major concern is the complete absence of a credible running game. When the Panthers made the Super Bowl two seasons ago, it was largely thanks to a running game that featured the powerful Stephen Davis and the shifty DeShaun Foster. Carolina has never had a good running game this season, however, and the broken-down status of Davis has only exacerbated the issue.
Two years ago, the Panthers ranked 22nd in the league in rushing DVOA, while this year they have fallen to 30th. In 2003, Davis was above average according to DVOA and thanks to a heavy workload was the ninth most productive back in football. Carolina's overall numbers were brought down by DeShaun Foster, who specializes in one yard gains on first down and eight yard runs on third-and-11. This year, Davis has returned following microfracture surgery on his knee at the advanced (for a running back) age of 31. He has lost all effectiveness outside of one-yard touchdown plunges and is averaging just 3.0 yards per carry.
That leaves Foster, who had a classic DeShaun Foster game on Sunday. He had two good runs on the day, eight-yard and seven-yard gains on first down. He padded his rushing stats with a nine-yard run on third-and-16 and a 12-yard gain on third-and-21. On his other four runs, he gained three or fewer yards and converted zero first downs. Foster has developed into a useful receiver this year, but between his inconsistent running and Davis a glorified goal line back, Carolina has no running game.
Without a running game, all the pressure falls on Jake Delhomme, who when he is not throwing to Steve Smith is a poor quarterback. As I have documented before, Delhomme is a turnover machine. That was apparent on Sunday when Delhomme threw two terrible interceptions in the first half. The Bears returned both deep into Carolina territory and converted them into 10 of their 13 points.
Delhomme seems capable only of throwing to Steve Smith. When forced to his second option he struggles mightily. The Bears were aware of Delhomme's tendencies to lock on his first receiver, and when they covered him, Delhomme forced passes. After the two early interceptions, Delhomme began holding the ball when confused and was sacked an amazing eight times, all by defensive linemen. Avoiding sacks was one of Delhomme's primary strengths going into this game. After the early picks, however, Delhomme seemed flustered if his primary read was covered and held the ball too long.
On Sunday, Chicago held Smith to the quietest 14-catch, 169-yard game in history. Smith caught 14 of 20 passes intended for him, an impressive rate, but many of the passes were underneath. On eight of Smith's receptions, he gained seven yards or fewer, and only one of those was good for a first down. The Panthers have become so desperate to get Smith the ball that they are forcing him balls that even the amazing Smith cannot turn into big plays. Smith did have an excellent game, and he has been the best receiver in football this year. The Bears were able to control the damage, however, allowing him only two completions of 20 or more yards.
Carolina's offense may have holes, but its total domination by Chicago cemented the Bears as the best defense in football. What is so impressive about the Bears defense is that it is a balanced unit with absolutely no holes. The Bears rank first in DVOA against both the run and the pass. Their linebacking corps, with superstar Brian Urlacher and the very steady Lance Briggs, deserves the plaudits it receives.
Against Carolina the defensive line stole the spotlight with the aforementioned sacks, but the key was the strong play by the secondary. Cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher form what may be the best pair of young cornerbacks in the league. Tillman emerged as a surprise star his rookie season out of Louisiana-Lafayette. After a sophomore slump, he has returned to a solid level of play. Vasher has taken over as the starter on the other side and excelled with solid coverage and a propensity for big plays. He not only picked off Delhomme twice on Sunday but also forced a fumble by Smith. Meanwhile, Jerry Azumah has assumed Vasher's old role as nickel back and has dominated opposing third receivers.
The Bears cornerbacks have been solid, but the key to their pass defense may be their safeties. The safeties have combined with the athletic linebackers to eliminate opposing running backs and tight ends as viable options. Safety Mike Brown has returned from missing most of the 2004 season to control the middle of the field and rookie Chris Harris has been as impressive as a fifth-round rookie can be.
Putting this whole unit together is Lovie Smith, one of the least-appreciated defensive minds in football. After working for Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay, Smith led the St. Louis defense from 2001 to 2003. Here is a chart of St. Louis's defensive DVOA from 2000 through 2004, the year Smith took over as head coach in Chicago. Remember, a negative DVOA means a better defense. (The years with Smith are highlighted.)
|Rams Defensive DVOA|
In Smith's first year at the helm in Chicago, he oversaw a team that lost Brown for 10 games and Urlacher for seven and still improved from 17th to 12th in defensive DVOA. This year, with his team fully healthy, the Bears rank first in the league. Smith is rarely mentioned among the great defensive minds in football, but it is becoming very hard to argue with his results.
Both teams enter the home stretch with 7-3 records. If the playoffs started today, the Bears would actually have the number two seed and a first round bye thanks to their 6-1 record in the conference. According to DVOA, the Bears have moved into the top 10 overall and now rank ahead of the Panthers.
Still, the Bears face two major obstacles in their final playoff push. First, they have a difficult schedule the rest of the season. They close with four of their final six games on the road and play three teams with winning records. A win at Tampa Bay this weekend, however, will make them serious contenders for a first round bye.
The bigger problem is the abysmal play they have received from rookie Kyle Orton at quarterback. Because the Bears are winning, most people think Orton has developed into a competent game manager. In reality, he is among the worst starting quarterbacks in football. Playing behind a solid offensive line with a potent run offense, he is completing only 55 percent of his passes for an anemic 5.26 yards per attempt. Despite mainstream media reports that Orton is playing safe football, he has thrown 11 interceptions and fumbled eight times.
DPAR is a statistic that measures how many points a player has added above a replacement level player. Orton has an abysmal -26.3 DPAR, second worst in the league. His DVOA of -38.4 percent ranks 38th of the 41 quarterbacks who have attempted 80 passes. The lowest DVOA of any quarterback to start a playoff game since 1998 is the -23.8 percent, posted by Anthony Wright in 2003. Orton is only a rooke, but at this point in his career, he is not ready to be a starting quarterback. The three scoring drives against Carolina totaled 55 yards, and he threw an interception deep in Carolina territory on Chicago's most impressive drive.
Rex Grossman returns from injury in the next several weeks. Lovie Smith moved to avoid a quarterback controversy by declaring Orton the quarterback for the rest of the season. Grossman may be entirely unproven, but could he possibly be worse than Orton has been?
Carolina is in a dogfight for the competitive NFC South. With only three of their first ten games against teams with winning records, they should have built a lead by this point. With three games left against Atlanta or Tampa Bay, they certainly control their own destiny. Unfortunately, they also have a game against Dallas and a road game in Buffalo. The only apparent gimme on their schedule is a game against a New Orleans team that has beaten them twice in a row. If the Panthers do make the playoffs, it will be because their exceptional defense carries a very flawed offense.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the biggest upset of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these upsets as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.