Four Downs: AFC East

Four Downs: AFC East
Four Downs: AFC East
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Sean McCormick

Buffalo Bills: How can they fix the run defense?

Asking first-time defensive coordinator George Edwards to install a 3-4 defense despite inheriting a roster with a bunch of undersized front seven players seemed like a bad decision way back in August, and nothing that happened during the season made it look any better. Edwards jettisoned the notion of a true 3-4 early on, subbing in Alex Carrington or Spencer Johnson on running downs, but it wasn't enough to prevent Buffalo from finishing dead last in our Adjusted Line Yards stats. The Bills only stuffed running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage 13 percent of the time, well below the league average, and they were among the worst in the league at bringing down runners who reached the second level of the defense. During one particularly brutal three-game stretch, the Bills surrendered 689 yards on the ground, and they allowed at least 200 yards rushing in eight of their 16 games.

Nose tackle Kyle Williams was selected to the Pro Bowl on the strength of his 77 tackles and 5.5 sacks. While that wasn't enough to make up for the porous linebacker play behind him, he established himself as the centerpiece around which the new defense will be constructed. Some big name teammates are less likely to hang around.

Marcus Stroud will cost $4.5 million against the cap next year (if there is a cap, of course). Releasing him would open a starting spot for Carrington, a 2010 third-round pick who flashed ability as a rotation player. Aaron Maybin redefined being in the coach's doghouse, as he was unable even to crack the special teams unit, and it is almost a given that the former first-rounder won't be back. Shawne Merriman didn't play a down after being signed, but he'll be given an opportunity to rehab his Achilles. Even when Merriman was his old “Lights Out” self, he wasn't much of a run defender, so expecting him to set the edge as a base 3-4 outside linebacker is asking for trouble. Ultimately, the fix is going to come through a personnel overhaul, particularly at linebacker, but until then, expect Edwards to rely on multiple fronts and personnel packages as he tries to find something to slow down offenses.

Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch

The Bills have some cap space to work with, provided owner Ralph Wilson has the inclination to spend money on free agents. The team will probably let safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Drayton Florence leave. The secondary is deep enough to withstand the hit, provided Terrence McGee can stay healthy for a full season, something he has been unable to do in recent years. George Wilson represents a cheaper alternative to Whitmer at safety and should be re-signed. Unfortunately, the Bills need help at big-ticket positions like left tackle and defensive end, and it's rare for elite talent to hit the open market.

Miami Dolphins: Is Henne getting a bad rap?

Back in August, there was a popular debate swirling around the Internet about the relative merits of the two young AFC East gunslingers, Mark Sanchez and Chad Henne. Sanchez had the cache, the high draft position, and the playoff wins, but Henne had the sturdy frame and the big arm. A surprising number of scouts and analysts agreed that Henne was the true rising star. Fast forward and Sanchez is coming off his second consecutive AFC Championship appearance, while Henne has apparently lost his starting job to some combination of Tyler Thigpen and A Player To Be Named Later.

There is no question that Henne's performance was disappointing for a player supposedly on the verge of a breakout -- he threw for 3,300 yards, but managed only 15 touchdowns compared to 19 interceptions. But Miami's pass offense was no worse than league average; in fact, it was the second-best in the division behind New England. And Henne's advanced numbers are closely aligned with the other AFC East signalcallers not named Tom Brady.

AFC East Quarterbacks Comparison
Quarterback DYAR Rank DVOA Rank
Chad Henne 593 17th 6.7% 22nd
Ryan Fitzpatrick 476 18th 5.0% 23rd
Mark Sanchez 437 20th 1.6% 27th

Standard statistics -- and popular perception -- suggest that Sanchez took a solid step forward in his second season and Fitzpatrick was a revelation who made a lost season exciting for the downtrodden Buffalo fan base, while Henne was nothing short of a disaster. But perception doesn't account for context, and it doesn't account for luck, either.

At Football Outsiders, one of the statistics our game charters compile is the number of times a quarterback threw an interception that the defender dropped. Although there are still a handful of games uncharted, our numbers currently have Sanchez leading the league with 15 dropped interceptions. No other quarterback has more than nine (our current count for Carson Palmer). So while Sanchez seemingly improved by cutting his interceptions down to 13, the reality is that he threw another 13 passes that easily could have been picked had defenders held onto the ball. The argument for Sanchez's improvement was largely based on the idea that he was playing smarter and limiting his turnovers, but the only thing that Sanchez really improved was his luck.

Who was the unluckiest quarterback this year? Chad Henne. Henne threw 19 interceptions on the season, but he only threw one dropped interception. That's not going to happen again. Henne remains a talented player, and the odds of his experiencing a rebound next season are pretty good. Before GM Jeff Ireland decides to blow a first-round pick on Jake Locker or Cam Newton, he may want to consider investing in more linemen and receivers to help out the guy who is already on the roster.

Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch

The top priority is to figure out a way to retain nose tackle Paul Soliai, who had a breakout season. The run defense will to take a serious hit if Soliai leaves via free agency, and retaining him seems like a long shot. Soliai would only be eligible for a 30 percent salary increase if he re-signs with Miami, and there are no shortage of teams ready to break the bank for him should he enter the free agent market. Most of their other decisions are on the offensive side of the ball. Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown are both free agents. Williams is 34 and on the decline. Brown still has value as both a regular back and in the Wildcat, and there is a decent chance that the team will re-sign him and pair him with a new backfield partner. Richie Incognito performed competently and could return for the right price.

New England Patriots: Was the defensive improvement at the end of the season a mirage?

For much of the season, the Patriots were a flawed juggernaut. While Tom Brady and the offense kept pace with the prolific 16-0 team of 2007, the defense played the part of the red-headed stepchild. Despite the continual refrain from announcers and local media that the Pats defense was young and improving, it wasn't really the case.
There were some quality individual performances, most notably from rookie Devin McCourty, who snagged seven interceptions and provided credible coverage all season. However, through 12 weeks, New England's DVOA was 16.6%, which left them mired at 27th in the league. But starting with the 45-3 demolition of the Jets, the defense seemed to turn a corner. In Weeks 13-17, the Patriots ranked second in the league in overall defense and were the league's best team defending the pass. With everything rounding into form, New England looked borderline unbeatable heading into the playoffs. But the defense played poorly in a shocking 28-21 loss to the Jets, which opens the question of whether or not the late season improvement was real or a mirage.

It's dangerous to draw conclusions from a single game, but it's notable that the defense was unable to create any turnovers, which was a key to their late season surge -- the Patriots generated 24 turnovers in the second half of the season after only managing 14 through the first eight games. After being middle of the pack at pressuring quarterbacks, the Patriots were unable to get to Mark Sanchez even once, and rarely forced him to hurry his throws.

Some of the problems, however, had been bugaboos all year. New England's pass defense DVOA on third downs was 27th in the NFL, and Sanchez converted five of his nine third down opportunities, including touchdown strikes to Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards. The Pats also continued to struggle against slot receivers, as Jerricho Cotchery burned them for seven catches for 96 yards, including one big play on the drive after the Patriots had cut the lead to 14-11.

The solution is to add better pass rushers and to improve the depth at cornerback. The latter should happen when Leigh Bodden returns to take over one of the starting cornerback slots. That will allow Kyle Arrington to slide into the nickel and cut down the amount of time Darius Butler spends on the field. The pass rusher is going to have to come from free agency or, more likely, the draft, where New England has three of the top 33 selections.

Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch

Logan Mankins is one of the premier interior linemen in the NFL, and he will get paid like one, whether in New England or elsewhere. Mankins has indicated the he will consider returning, but he has given no indication that he is prepared to accept anything less than market value. What makes Mankins' situation tricky is that left tackle Matt Light is coming off a Pro Bowl season and is also up for a new deal. While Mankins is younger and better, he plays a less important position, so it's possible the team will pay Light and attempt to draft a replacement at guard. Most of the running backs on roster are also impending free agents. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is restricted and will certainly be back; Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor are likely at the end of the line. Faulk has a job on the coaching staff waiting for him should he choose to retire.

New York Jets: What happened to the third-down defense?

It was only fitting that the Jets season ended because their vaunted defense was unable to get the Steelers off the field on a third-down play. Allowing Ben Roethlisberger's pitch-and-catch to Emmanuel Sanders to seal a victory in the AFC Championship game was par for the course for a defense that was stout on first and second downs but positively inept when it came to closing the deal. New York's defensive DVOA splits by down will come as a surprise to those who think of Rex Ryan as a mad genius who blitzes quarterbacks into oblivion in passing situations. The Jets were a top five defense on first and second down, but their 32.1% DVOA on third downs was the worst performance of any defense in the league. Moreover, the Jets defense got worse on third down the further the offense had to go: In short-yardage situations, their DVOA was a relatively respectable 5.5%, but it jumped to a whopping 92.3% in third-and-long. In 2009, the Jets were the best defense in the league on third downs, so what exactly happened?

The answer is twofold. First, the Jets had a very difficult time covering No. 2 receivers. Early in the year, Antonio Cromartie matched up against the opponent's best receiver, while Darrelle Revis tried to play his way through a nagging hamstring injury. Teams made hay while they could, going after Revis repeatedly until he demonstrated he was healthy. Once Revis returned to form, quarterbacks shifted their attention to Cromartie, who was excellent at downfield coverage but who struggled to mirror quicker receivers in and out of their breaks. Additionally, the league caught up to some of the more exotic blitzes that worked so well in 2009. The Jets' sack totals actually jumped from 32 to 40, but the purpose of blitzing isn't simply to get to the quarterback. Instead, it is supposed to disrupt the offense's timing and generate rushed throws that turn into incompletions or turnovers, and that did not happen with enough regularity.

The good news is that the defense is almost certainly going to be better next year, and it's not just because Revis Island will be open to start the season. Defenses that are strong on first and second down but underperform on third down tend to get a bump the following season, as the third-down performance regresses back toward the mean. Even a moderate improvement could be enough to make this the best defense in football again.

Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch

With no fewer than 17 pending free agents, it's safe to say that the 2011 Jets will look quite a bit different than this year's model. There is a fairly obvious hierarchy, however, as the team will make every effort to retain linebacker David Harris, receivers Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Brad Smith, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie -- likely in that order. Early indications are that the Jets intend to franchise Harris, who was the team's MVP, and then turn their attention to signing Holmes to a long-term deal. Edwards, who has been a good soldier and a consistent player since coming over from Cleveland, is welcome to return, but only at the right price. Smith makes for an interesting case, as his value has come not so much as a receiver, but as a kick returner and a trigger man for the Seminole package, New York's version of the Wildcat.

Portions of this article originally appeared on Insider.


33 comments, Last at 23 Feb 2011, 11:47pm

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Pitch and Catch with Antonio Brown, not Manny Sanders.

2 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

I have a Chad Henne question: How big was his injury and his lines injury to his play? To me he noticeably had a drop in play after getting hurt verse the Titans. He really had 1 good game after that. 8 of his Ints came after that game. It seemed like he was a mid level QB prior to the injury and then started to fall to bottom of the weekly charts after.

3 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Pretty amazing stat regarding the Jets 3rd down defense.

And if Bodden comes back for the Pats and plays like he did in 09, the Pats secondary is going to be vastly improved. Kyle Arrington was like the 5th CB on the depth chart going into training camp and eventually became the starter. He played pretty damn well considering, too. I still have hope that Butler can get his act together but next year is a make or break year for him. If he sucks again, he's gone.

4 Re: Cam Newton

What's the consensus on Cam Newton's draft grade -- is he really first round material? Of course the historically accurate joke would be for Miami to use a 2nd round pick on him.

7 Re: Cam Newton

In reply to by Chris Owen (not verified)

The consensus seems to have improved markedly since Bus Cook paid off Mel Kiper.

14 Re: Cam Newton

In reply to by Chris Owen (not verified)

I think that he'll be regarded as a certain top five when we get to the draft. He's probably the best physical specimen ever to play qb. His size speed ratio is absurd with great height to see over the pass rush, the lack of which still limits Vick. When you factor in his fantastic arm , which you have to do when considering qb athleticism, he is an astonishing prospect. You wouldn't have to take anything out of your scheme with him and his running skills mean that you can add in many of the wrinkles that the Eagles use to great effect. Look at the run game for every team Vick has played on, the threat of him taking off on a waggle or bootleg holds the backside pursuit, effectively taking a man out of the run defense resulting in great success for VIcks running backs.

The only thing limiting him is what goes on above above his neck. He gets criticised for not having played in an NFL offense but none of the other top rated quarterbacks have either. (The other guy that gets this is Kaepernick, which does make me wonder why the other (white) players seem to get a pass). I think that almost every coach in the league will be thinking, 'I can coach this guy'.

I'd be happy for the niners to take him with the seventh pick but I don't think he'll be there. I think he goes one or three (or two if Denver trade down).

16 Re: Cam Newton

In reply to by Karl Cuba

Playing in a spread offense also dogged Tebow, Alex Smith, Colt McCoy, and to a lesser extent, Sam Bradford. Matt Stafford was artificially over-rated for having played in an NFL offense.

Even Vick, who has more or less panned out, took years to acclimate to the NFL. Vince Young never quite got it, and JaMarcus Russell retired the day after he signed his contract. The concern with Newton is that he'll be less amazing when the other players are faster and he doesn't have a wide side of the field to run to. He's basically Vince Young, but even less developed.

The upside to Newton is that much like Vick, his teams weren't substantially more talented than his competition. Newton had to win more than one shootout. There's something to the success of MAC QBs, who, by and large, play for teams that aren't as good as the competition, and are more NFL-ready by the time the talent levels out. That's one reason I think Kaepernick is an interesting prospect. He's got a goofy skill set, but he's played a lot of games against teams better than Nevada, and done pretty well.

32 Re: Cam Newton

In reply to by Aaron Brooks' … (not verified)

Reading the Cam Newton-is-a-top-five-pick thing above, I thought, immediately, "JaMarcus Russell". Now, there's no guarantee that Cam Newton is as disinterested as Russell, but you don't have to be that focused on cheeseburgers to be a failure. You just have to be Vince Young or Ryan Leaf, convinced that YOU don't need to study film every waking moment, because YOU'RE just that talented. Nobody is that talented in the NFL. You know which quarterback watches the most film? Peyton [expletive deleted] Manning.

The success rate for running quarterbacks in the past twenty years in the NFL is really low; and with one exception (Vick), those quarterbacks were successful because they stopped running and started throwing (Culpepper, McNabb). The #2 rushing QB in the NFL is Aaron Rodgers, and every Packer fan I know wishes he would cut it the heck out. Is Cam Newton, sans running ability, a better quarterback than Jake Locker? Blaine Gabbert? That's the question NFL scouts will - rightly - be asking themselves.

5 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Ah, the patented "FO sloppy use of new statistical toys".

Chad Henne has had two years as the primary starting quarterback of the Dolphins, three years in the organization and five years at Michigan before that. The Miami coaching staff would rather start the 2010 Pennington and Thigpen over him. Presumably their decision had more justification than Henne's interceptions, dropped or otherwise. They certainly had more information than the "surprising number" of scouts and commentators. And even if the "surprising number" of scouts were real, they certainly weren't too enthusiastic about Henne before. Parcells himself spent two higher picks in the draft before spending a bottom 2nd on the Michigan quarterback.

"Dropped interceptions" as charted by you has only a one year track record. We have no idea if it's a)accurate or b)useful. (We know that actual interceptions isn't terribly predicative.) To base the analysis on Henne on one measly stat of speculative value while ignoring the mass of other information on him is pretty ridiculous.

6 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

That isn't quite fair. There are a lot of stats in the article, they just happen to highlight dropped interceptions. I'm skeptical of that number too, mostly because like actual interceptions, dropped interceptions are going to be a very high-variance number. Daunte Culpepper lost his career to that variance (and a knee injury) one year after posting one of the most impressive statistical seasons in NFL history.

But Henne had more DYAR and better DVOA than both Fitzpatrick and Sanchez. That's not precisely impressive, because there are very few quarterbacks in the NFL worse than Fitzpatrick and Sanchez. But it is what the article was talking about, and even independent of dropped picks, the stats make the point pretty clearly. (I'm less sure that anyone thought Sanchez and especially Fitzpatrick were better than Henne anyway; those teams just had no Chad Pennington).

8 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

I think the biggest problem with Henne had to do with OC Dan Henning. Not only was his play-calling atrocious in ways obvious to anyone, but in subtle forms as well. For example, Henne is a QB who doesn't like play action. He doesn't sell it well and he doesn't like to take his eyes off the receivers (reading the defense is one of his weaknesses). Yet Henning continually called play action, even when everyone and their mother knew a pass was coming. In general, you could say the offense was made to suit a guy like Chad Pennington (which is why the staff preferred him, as the above poster notes), and hard as they tried to fit Henne into that mold, he's not that kind of player.

So I'm looking forward to seeing what Henne can do with an offense tailored to his strengths, and not to his weaknesses.

10 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

-(reading the defense is one of his weaknesses)

That seems like a much more important point than anything else in the paragraph, and something no change of OC's would cure.

Just so you know, Dan Henning's replacement, Brian Daboll, was the architect of the Cleveland "offense" of the last two years. So, yeah, don't expect much.

12 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

In reply to by loneweasel (not verified)

I agree with this. Not a Fins fan, but from what I've seen from him, he's late on a lot of throws and struggles with his progressions. His struggles with play action makes sense, too. I always wanted to see him get the ball out quicker.

The main problem with the Fins offense, from what I saw, was their running game completely imploded this year. If Henne had Sanchez's line, running game and WR, I'm sure he would play better. People forget how much talent Sanchez has around him...and he's still mediocre to solid (at times).

22 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Yeah, the running game sucked. I'm not sure about the lukewarm love for Incognito in this article, as the inner line was the main culprit.

About Daboll, yeah, it may not be that much better. But who knows, he got a pretty good endorsement from Pennington. It at least appears he'll be better for Henne's development even if the system still isn't right. We'll see. He can't be any worse, honestly.

9 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Why does FO fall victim to the common but meaningless comparison of a QB's TD passes v. interceptions ("(Henne) managed only 15 touchdowns compared to 19 interceptions"). It's never made the slightest bit of sense to me to compare these numbers. Yes, TD's good (but incredibly overrated as an individual stat), INT's bad, but we don't compare a batter's RBI and strikeout totals. It'd be much more meaningful to cite INT% and bury TD passes.

13 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

I think Four Downs is an ESPN article that gets republished here later — it's okay to mix up conventional and advanced stats for that audience.
Secondly, although the TD:int ratio isn't at all useful, it's hard to think of a quick stat which could replace it. Just giving the number of INTs isn't all that helpful either, unless you know how many passes the quarterback threw; and I don't find interception rates easy to process — is Henne's 3.5% career INT rate high or low or about average?
One day I'd like to see DYAR broken down into segments in the way that Brian Burke splits up his Expected Points stat: how many DYAR were Henne's picks worth? Like punters, QBs could have "gross DYAR" and "net DYAR", the latter including interceptions, fumbles and sacks (but how much should we debit the QB for a pick-six??). This would help to sort out which bits of the role each quarterback does well or not well — it would save us a lot of boring arguments about Ben Roethlisberger, for a start.
I thought this was what Effective Yards was going to be used for; but it now seems Effective Yards gets used for nothing very much at all.

15 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Int%, completed passes:int ratio, or passes attempted:int would all be better than TD:INT.

As for how easy int% is to process, it would just take writers actually use it for a while and you could get used to it.

17 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

If you don't look at TDs, Favre's 1998 season was identical to Warner's 2001 season, and Brees had a better year in 2010 than Marino had in 1986.

18 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

I think you mean "if you only look at int%."

Warner threw for 1.2 more yards per attempt in 01 than Favre did in 98. Which I find much more useful than knowing Warner threw for 5 more TDs.

23 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

TD passes are good. The object of the game, after all, is to score points. I don't know what place they should have in analysis, but they're definitely worth something.

30 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

It's not the best comparison, but it's not useless either.

Passing TDs together with INTs can give an idea of how a QB is used. A QB who throws a high number of INTs but also a high number of TDs may be the victim of an offense that simply requires him to pass a lot. High INTs and low TDs is more likely to just be a bad QB, or possibly a mediocre QB struggling on a bad offense and playing from behind a lot.

I agree that INT% is better than TD/INT ratio or raw totals, but even that must be taken in context. A game manager type QB who is not asked to pass much may have a better INT% than a QB who passes more, but this doesn't necessarily mean he's more accurate or less prone to mistakes. It may just be that defenses are focusing more on the run and are less prepared to take advantage of the smaller number of errant passes.

19 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

In the Dolphins section, I believe you mean that Mark Sanchez "had the cachet..."

Mark Sanchez also probably has a cache of cash.

25 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

For some reason, Americans want to make all French words sounds French even when they don't particularly. "Cache" is one example; another is "forte," which we tend to pronounce "fortay" instead of "fort."

26 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

I always thought forte and cache were Italian. Unless there is an accent above a final e, a sole vowel e at the end of the word in French is usually silent.

27 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Exactly. That's why the correct pronunciations are "cash" and "fort."

Edit: Well, my trusty dictionary tells me that, though the word is derived from French, the French would spell it "fort," which would be pronounced "for." So between "fort" and "fortay," they say, "you can take your choice, knowing that someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you chose."

I'm not used to my dictionary having such a tart sense of humor, or any sense of humor at all, for that matter.

20 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

"Soliai would only be eligible for a 30 percent salary increase if he re-signs with Miami, and there are no shortage of teams ready to break the bank for him"

This confused me. Does this mean that is harder for a team to re-sign its own player than for someone else to sign him? Surely they should at least be allowed to match another team's offer?

33 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

In reply to by Annonymous (not verified)

I think this is where the Franchise Tag comes into play. Franchise him for one season, and then give him the big signing bonus the next year.

24 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Yeah, I didn't think the 30% rule applied if a guy's contract had expired. I thought it was only for extensions.

31 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

I'm not sure how much it, or any of the other free agency-type rules, matters right now, since all of that is subject to change when there's a new CBA.

28 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

That info on Henne and Sanchez regarding dropped interceptions was terrific!