Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos
Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Andrew Healy

Only twice before in the 10-year history of Any Given Sunday has the team that we exalted as the week's best upset winner then been humbled in their own upset the very next week. Last Tuesday, we saluted the Broncos' defense and their current pace to rank with the best units of the last 25 years. One week later, the Broncos had a loss that feels like the kind of day a great defense doesn't have. If the 2015 Broncos defense has a chance to be the 1985 Bears, or 1991 Eagles, or 2013 Seahawks, they shouldn't lose the matchup against a middling Colts offense, right? Those great defenses evoke memories of impenetrable swarms swallowing up helpless quarterbacks. Over time, those defenses have become those memories of dominance. On Sunday, the Broncos bore little resemblance to them.

But bad games happen even to great defenses. No defense in the DVOA era (back to 1989) has run the table and been above average every week. Even the 1985 Bears had a rough day against a mediocre offense. Two years ago, in Week 9, the Seahawks got rolled for a half by Mike Glennon and a terrible Buccaneers offense, posting the fifth-worst defensive DVOA (34.6%) for the week.

On Sunday, the Broncos' rating (7.9%) came in much closer to average than that. And the current weak opponent adjustment for the Colts -- who entered the game ranked 21st on offense -- is the only reason the rating is not almost exactly average. That's much worse than the Broncos have been in previous weeks, when they became the first defense in our data to start the season with seven consecutive weeks of -10.0% ratings or better, but far from an ominous sign.

Moreover, some of the Broncos' struggles were driven by injuries during the game to four of their stars. After the Broncos forced a three-and-out on the Colts' first possession, cornerback Chris Harris left with a possible concussion in the middle of the Colts' next drive, which led to a touchdown. Harris returned in the middle of the next series, but was less dominant than he had been against Green Bay. In the second quarter, linebacker Brandon Marshall also left in the concussion protocol before returning after the half. Later, after the Broncos had forced six straight Andrew Luck incompletions and a fourth consecutive Indianapolis punt, DeMarcus Ware came out of the game with a back injury midway through the third quarter. Safety T.J. Ward also missed a few plays soon after with his own injury.

The Colts scored ten points on their next two possessions before ending the game with some helpful yellow beanbag tosses following mental meltdowns. Most egregiously, Aqib Talib got a personal foul just outside the two-minute warning that prevented the Broncos from getting the ball back with enough time for one last drive. Talib and coach Gary Kubiak are adamant that he did not intend to poke Colts tight end Dwayne Allen in the eye, which seems plausible only if Talib was waxing nostalgic about the Pinewood Derby and got overenthusiastic about the Cub Scout salute.

While the penalties and injuries hurt the Broncos on Sunday, the penalties are unlikely to repeat and the only defensive injury that appears likely to persist beyond this week is Ware's, which should sideline him for about a month. Ware's loss hurts, but the Broncos held up defensively earlier in the year when Ware was out with the back injury, even in the game against the Raiders where he left in the first half. Perhaps more difficult to deal with are the in-game injuries to key players in the secondary, even if they didn't force Harris or Ward from the game for long. So many recent examples jump to mind of defenses being undone by in-game secondary injuries. In two consecutive AFC Championship games, the Patriots' defense succeeded early and then unraveled after losing Aqib Talib. In the Super Bowl, the Seahawks' defense looked very gettable after losing cornerback Jeremy Lane. A defense as dominant as Denver's doesn't need alibis, but we sometimes underplay how much injury luck matters for how well even great units play.

As we talked about last week, some regression was inevitable for a team that got off to a start as good as Denver's. But with Harris, Ward, and Marshall all likely to be at full speed next week and the Broncos young on defense at most spots, let's still call it a blip for now with one below-average game following seven mostly-great ones.

Andrew Luck Beating Blitzes Again

In 2014, Andrew Luck mostly shredded blitzes according to our ratings. When facing four or fewer pass rushers, the Colts ranked just 19th in offensive DVOA (11.3%). But when they faced five or more rushers, the Colts ranked fourth (40.2%). Despite that success against the blitz, opponents blitzed Luck more than any other quarterback.

Through the first seven games of 2015, Luck succeeded much less against the blitz than last year, before breaking out on Sunday. Courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information, here are Luck's numbers this year against the blitz:

Andrew Luck Beating the Blitzing Broncos

Dropbacks Cmp Pct Net Yds Per Dropback TD INT QBR
Against blitz, Weeks 1-8 100 48.3% 6.61 7 4 36.3
Against blitz, Week 9 vs DEN 27 61.5% 6.78 2 0 93.5


59 comments, Last at 13 Nov 2015, 1:39pm

3 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

From what I've seen QBR makes some good sense at evaluating a QB's past to see how good he's been, but it's too overfitted to make sense at on a game by game level. Brady's crazy low QBRs or some of the top QBR games just show that, because when you get down to a small number of events, sometimes it goes haywire.

5 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

We're not required to use QBR for this article by any contract. We simply don't have the DVOA stats lined up play-by-play with the blitz information from this year. We got the blitz data from ESPN, so we've got QBR instead of DVOA.

I don't have time to write a long post defending QBR here, but I have in the past. It's different than our stats in some ways but has a lot of value.

7 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

You can't really defend QBR, since you don't know what it is; anything that rates QB play, even poorly, will correlate with wins and losses better than most other statistics, since nothing predicts wins better than QB play. The secrecy behind QBR makes is a useless 'statistic' and analytic tool.

8 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

Well we don't really know how DVOA is calculated either but we have an idea as to what it's inputs are.

QBR looks to generally by some combination of Expected Points Added and Win Probability Added. The complicated part is that it assigns value to the players based on their contribution to the play. So a short pass that goes for a lot of YAC may not have a very big contribution to QBR but may be more of a factor in other stats.

11 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

Yes, and looking at ESPN to the inputs for their formulae leads to a lot of chortling. They do this thing called "clutch weighting" which seems to be penalizing Tom Brady for essentially playing way in front for most of the season. Ordinarily, one would think that "being way ahead all the time" would reflect well on a QB. (If that's not the cause of their repeated downgrading of Brady performances, I don't know what it is.)

They also subjectively "divide credit" between various players on every play. Doing such a thing removes QBR from consideration as a "statistic". It reflects the judgments of people assigning scores. It departs from cold analysis and replaces it with figure-skating style beauty contest voting.

A statistic should solely be interested in taking information out of a high-dimensional space of all the actions observed. QBR doesn't do that.

What do we know about QBR? Well it thinks that Aaron Rodgers had a better game on a week that he was 14 for 22 for 77 yards and 0 TDs than Tom Brady was on the same week when he was 26 for 38 for 356 yards and 4 TDs.

Brady had 9.4 yards per attempt. Rodgers had 3.5 yards per attempt. Brady was sacked twice, losing 14 yards. Rodgers was sacked three times, losing 27 yards. Comparing the old QB rating: Brady had 133.5, while Rodgers was 69.7.

And then we see Brady has a 60.7 QBR to Rodgers' 64.6.

There is a suspicion that the people at ESPN calculating QBRs are putting the thumb on the scale to screw over Brady. There appear to be a number of points in the calculation process where the judgment of the statistician (sic) is called upon. It seems like ESPN is using these points to deliberately torpedo Brady's QBR. Because they've been on board since January with the smear Brady campaign.

Is this paranoid? Sure. But it seems that paranoia is justified with ESPN.

How else can one look at the stats I cite above an produce an argument that leads to Rodgers having a higher QBR than Brady? QBR doesn't even have opponent adjustments, which would have applied when considering Rodgers vs. the Broncos. (And, FWIW, DYAR does use opponent adjustments and had Brady with 167 DYAR to Rodgers' -18.)

When a statistic produces a result so completely out of whack with every other rating, and said statistic is calculated in secret with no transparency, it really has to be dismissed as useless.

12 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

I haven't really looked into QBR much since ESPN is blocked at my office and I usually forget to look when I get home. It does seem like in theory it attempts to address some issues with other stats.

I do agree that it could very easily become subjective (e.g. how much of an incompletion do you assign to Bortles vs Rodgers?). The 'clutch' index is also that sounds particularly cringe worthy. QBR uses expected points added so it's possible that it does incorporate opponent adjustments. DYAR is good at quantifying outcome but I don't think is really able separate one player from the other components of the play. Trying to have the conditional impact for a single player is going to be more subjective than I would like but I can at least the value in trying to do it.

I was really just trying to point out that DYAR, DVOA, etc also a proprietary stats into which we have little insight. They sometimes also provide very strange results, though I guess upside is the FO is very good at responding to questions in the comments.

I do find it kind of amusing that there are conspiracy theories about ESPN trying to downplay Brady's accomplishments via QBR.

20 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

Have you considered that the Grantland being disbanded may be a lot more attributable to the fact that ESPN is owned by Disney, Disney has these entities known as stockholders, ESPN just paid a lot of money for broadcast rights to various sporting events, Disney stockholders really, really, really, really, want something known as profit, and Grantland did nothing to generate that? Or that using a faux statistic to detract from the wonderfulness of Tawwmmy really doesn't do anything for ESPN's CEO, when he talks to Disney's CEO?

What's a tinfoil removal procedure running in Boston these days?

29 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

To be fair to Rick, ESPN's coverage of DFG was so biased toward the NFL that even non-NE outfits were reporting about it. The bias was outrageous enough that it is nearly impossible to attribute it to anything but intention.

That said, the idea that QBR is manipulated to specifically rate Brady lower is pretty absurd, particularly when YAC and big leads adequately explain the odd results. There's no malice, it's just a stupid statistic.

FWIW, there is much more to the Grantland story than just profits. Interestingly, ESPN bears a great deal of responsibility for why Grantland wasn't earning as much as its name recognition would imply.

31 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

Grantland wasn't earning much because it's really freaking hard to make money selling print content on the internet, while paying the content producers really good salaries. Ask Schatz.

The idea that ESPN would bother to manipulate a metric to lessen the perception that Brady is a great qb is just plain dumb.

33 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

Especially when literally every single article written about the Patriots could be accused of overly praising him and features statements like "Brady led..." even if it was a 3-run drive that ended in a FG attempt. (This happens with all QBs, of course, and is just lazy writing, not evidence of bias.)

Bristol has long been accused of, if anything, a very pro-Boston bias. I still see it pretty frequently in baseball. They know their audience. Boston and NY teams are very polarizing and talking about them gets eyes on the screens. In baseball, at least, they have always had some employees that were pretty openly Red Sox fans (going well beyond Simmons). I say this not as some kind of giant accusation, just to point out that it's largely a matter of perception. Boston haters will complain that there's too much Boston coverage and view that as pro-Boston. Boston lovers will ignore the fact that they're getting nearly as much coverage nationally as they would be locally, and only focus on the negative, as that's what gets them talking.

37 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

ESPN is most definitely NOT pro-Patriots. They can be accused of shining the light too frequently in their direction, sure, but a complaint that that light is too favorable is without merit.

BTW, your sarcastic comment below about ESPN/Kacsmar misses the point entirely. People don't give Scott a hard time because his commentary is anti-Patriot, they do because it typically has obvious flaws that he all too eagerly ignores.

44 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

I don't think he's eagerly ignoring anything. For the most part, Scott is just one of the few people willing to shine the light on the things that everyone else tends to ignore in creating their own ridiculous narratives.

It's a shame that like politics, it ends up being interpreted as such a black and white thing, of course, but it's not like that "Manning's better but so what" article a) contains factual inaccuracies or b) insults Brady.

It just points to the things that have been out of their control that combine to help make one much more successful than the other when in a vacuum they ought to be much more similar.

As for whether ESPN is pro or anti-Patriots, I think that they're generall pro-whatever gets them the most hits/eyes. And that you or I could easily and quite justifiably point to evidence on either side of that question. They (and everyone) are (and should be) decidedly pro-Star and pro-story. That the story frequently ends up being negative isn't entirely their fault as you seem to be implying.

47 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

"Scott is just one of the few people willing to shine the light on the things that everyone else tends to ignore in creating their own ridiculous narratives."

Dave, I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt in assuming this is your first interaction with Scott. There is a reason why even non-Pats fans have been pushing back on Kacsmar's analyses; his issues with slanted narrative, biased application of stats and presumed conclusions go back a long way. If you are as thoughtful as I hope you are, you will come to recognize this in time as well as the possibility that it is your biases that initially led you down the wrong path.

48 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

Scott maybe biased but I won't hold a very human characteristic against him. I know we all should try to be dispassionate and objective when it comes to science and analysis but even the best scientists/mathematicians can fall prey to slanting and spinning pet theories/hypotheses and so football analysts shouldn't be held to a different standard. In any case this forum is for me one of the best venues for the presentation and critique of football analysis since the community is very well informed and has very good grasp of statistics. Just want to appreciate the work, effort and years he has poured into his analyses. All of our critiques and comments are done because of our never ending quest for football truth.

53 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

It's not, but I won't claim to have read everything he has written, or even close to it. I do like that he has been unafraid to challenge annoying media narratives, openly root for his team, and admit to being a cat owner. ;) But if we go back to our never-ending discussion and point to that AFC CG article from two years back where he argued in Manning's favor (or at least against the popular narrative), I'm not really seeing bias in the actual data.

(Sure, there's bias in his fandom, but that's not any different from you or I.)

I mean, you're free to read that data and have your eyes and mind tell you that your conclusion is still to prefer one guy; but I don't think he's necessarily trying to change anyone's mind with that. That article argues "the existing narrative is exaggerated, and here are all the factors outside of their control that contribute to why."

I'm only referring to that one particular article, though, because we have discussed it. I can't really speak to flaws in data of other articles because I don't read them all (I'll gladly follow a link or two though). I don't see flaws in that one's data. Any article that's trying to make a point will pick the best supporting data obviously, but it's not like he's using garbage stats (heh, QBR for instance) or leaving out huge important bits of information, or making logical errors like "Run to Win," etc.

(All that said, I did read this week's Clutch Encounters. I often skip that one, because I've always found it silly to credit a QB only for a comeback or GWD and never really cared who had the most. In fact, I can see the argument that that "stat" can be used to make arguments exactly of the variety that he has tried to discredit in other articles. Further, I wasn't a huge fan of the Rodgers bit this week. Not because I don't trust the data, though; just that I don't think it matters that much. Or is his fault. Etc. It's mildly useful to know, just in case someone is getting way over-hyped (or underhyped - I suppose early Romo would be a good example) and deserves a closer look; and I suppose I am interested in knowing why he's at 0% on something that others are 20-30% at when his team is otherwise successful. Just as I am interested in looking more closely at why Brady's QBR doesn't match any other statistics or my own eye test. Even the worst statistic and worst use of it could still open your eyes to something you hadn't noticed before.)

35 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

I know it is, which is why you generally don't bail on a project that creates such sudden brand recognition. A whole lot more went into that decision than just dollars and cents.

I'm not sure why you felt the need to repeat what I said about QBR. Did you miss that I called that accusation "absurd"?

40 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

You bail on projects that burn through cash like Dan Snyder in pursuit of fat, lazy, linemen, when you have major institutional stockholders saying, "HOLY SH*T!! You've committed HOW MUCH capital to secure future broadcast rights?!! Fer' the luv of Roone Effing Arledge, where in The Wide, Wide, World of Sports are you going to get the money for that!!!".

24 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

Really, a Brady QBR conspiracy? I don't understand why Rodgers was above 50.0 (average) against Denver, but I'm pretty sure most of Brady's 2015 can be explained by YAC adjustments. We'll hopefully be able to look at that soon with YAC+, before and after the Dion Lewis injury. Lewis had a ridiculous number of missed tackles, and Julian Edelman is one of the leaders in that area for WRs.

32 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

Thank you.

This is very, very obvious.

Brady doesn't really throw down the field that often. He throws quick short passes to people that are frequently wide open, and then they run for yards after the catch, which goes on their own stats, and not Brady's. Brady's correct decisions pre and post snap are not given any extra weight, though it should be noted that that's pretty much true of all statistics, and even scoring like PFF's, because it just measures the actual plays, and unless the bad decision leads to a pick or something, they don't get penalized beyond "incomplete" in most cases.

I can't believe I'm actually defending QBR, because I think it's pretty stupid too, but come on. This is obvious, not some conspiracy.


50 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

Not that QBR deserves much respect, but be careful how you interpret DVOA numbers. 30% above average is not really twice as a valuable as 15% above in most contexts. For example, it's unlikely you would call a RB who gets 5.2 ypc twice as valuable as one who gets 4.6 ypc in a year were 4.0 is average.

4 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

The prose asserts that the Colts only got a 6.9% offense DVOA rating (there's a whole paragraph pointing out that that's surprising with a decent performance against such a good D), but according to the table their VOA was 6.9% and their DVOA was 25.1%, which seems much more in line with what you'd expect.

13 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

I wonder if Luck's success against blitzes has something to do with his willingness to take hits in the pocket? If a QB of Luck's stature knows that he can absorb hits with reduced risk of serious injury compared to average QBs, then he can afford to hold on to the ball longer than average QBs while finding an open receiver. And when the defence is blitzing, and there are fewer players in coverage, a receiver is bound to get open eventually.

If this is the case, then Luck's shoulder / rib injuries might explain his poor performance against the blitz earlier this year.

36 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

That was one of the hardest hits I've seen all season. It's the kind of hit that we say QBs have to avoid when running, but I watched it a bunch of times and I really think Trevathan didn't give Luck an opportunity to slide. He come off his coverage so quickly. So maybe that hit was unavoidable. But the extra punishment he takes compared to other top QBs is ridiculous. They only started paying the price this year, but it's been coming.

45 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

Denver's linebackers are freakishly quick to close, which is the one thing that gives me some degree of hope that they'll outperform past Wade Defenses against the Pats, even with this current iteration of that offense. That side-side quickness should lead to a few more 3rd and 7s than 3rd and 3s (and maybe not any 3rd and 17 conversions) and that alone can change a game.

What bugs me is that it's so easy for people to blame the OL and the management for not protecting him when in fact he took that hit outside the pocket. Put another [highly incendiary or possibly Mike Freeman-esque] way, I don't recall ever seeing anyone blaming Falcons and Eagles management for the hits that Michael Vick took.

Also, that was one of two giant hits that Luck took that game that made me cringe when watching live. I need to go back and find what the other one was.

19 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

"While the penalties and injuries hurt the Broncos on Sunday, the penalties are unlikely to repeat"

Are you sure about that? While Talib's Ric Flair impersonation probably won't repeat, Denver has been racking up dumb penalties every single week. Don't they lead the league in personal fouls? Some, like the Ward penalty for defenseless receiver, are at the whims of the refs, but the roughing the passer penalties and late hits seem to be epidemic.

27 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

Your last section on Vinatieri leads one to wonder if kickers benefit from steroids. If he was a baseball player and suddenly increased power at age 40, we'd certainly come to that conclusion. I realize there are historically other kickers who played into their 40s. Are there others who kept or improved their power?

34 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

In defense of Vinatieri, he has always had a leg on him. He would routinely start at the 25 and keep backing up 5 yards and blasting moon shots through the uprights during warmups, often hitting from 58-60 and missing more often due to side-side accuracy than distance.

This was indoors at RCA and LOS of course, but I think a lot of the reason he doesn't have that much of a history of longer FGs is mostly because he wasn't often asked to kick them.

Kicking is more about flexibility and connectedness than it is about strength or recovery anyway. I think steroids would be much less beneficial to a kicker than to any other position. (Though, yeah, it would help some.)

38 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

I did actually look up some famous older kickers of the past. Guys like Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson appeared to lose effectiveness around 40 from long range, but the sample size makes it hard to be sure. Anderson's perfect regular season (and not-perfect postseason) in '98 was in his age-39 season.

43 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

Yeah, the PEDs are allowing the kicker to hugely increase the frequency and intensity of his training, weight training, and otherwise, which has to allow him, if done correctly, to substantially increase the mass and speed that his body can have when striking the ball. Physics being physics, the ball travels further.

46 Re: Any Given Sunday: Colts Over Broncos

This is true, but I think the effect is magnified in baseball - where the difference in the flight of, say, Bonds' fly balls actually only increased maybe 10-12 feet (on top of 300+ to start) - because you're creating that torque through your entire body swinging an extension of it (the bat, of course) with both feet anchored. A closed chain exercise, if you will.

There most certainly still is body-generated torque via the single planted leg of a kick, starting with core stability and strength and connectedness, as well as hip and knee extension strength. But much of the force applied to the ball is through that free-swinging leg, and much of that velocity comes not from muscle mass or strength but flexibility through the front of the hip. The farther back you can swing the leg (which, again, does involve an element of ab and glute strength), the more speed you're going to generate. Same as bat or golf club speed.

Steroids help everything. They're a pretty wonderful thing, except for the whole abuse thing. So kicking is included in that. But I think simply because it's unilateral as opposed to bilateral, kicking sees less of a benefit than hitting a baseball or sprinting would.