NFC Wild-Card Playoff Preview 2017
by Vincent Verhei (DET-SEA) and Aaron Schatz (NYG-GB)
The NFC got the two late-game slots on wild-card weekend this year, and these are the two headline matchups out of the first four games. However, each pair of teams is going in a different direction. Saturday night's combatants, Seattle and Detroit, somewhat backed into the postseason, combining to go 3-5 over the past four weeks. Sunday's opponents, Green Bay and New York, are playing their best football of the year and will give us a master chess match between a great quarterback and a great pass defense.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted.
Detroit at Seattle
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The Saturday evening wild-card matchup features two teams that finished the season on disappointing notes and somewhat backed their way into the playoffs. The Detroit Lions were once 9-4 on the strength of an all-time record eight fourth-quarter comeback wins, and eyeing not just a home playoff game, but a potential first-round bye. Then they lost each of their final three games, sneaking into the postseason as the sixth seed. The last of those losses was most painful: a 31-24 loss at home to Green Bay that clinched the NFC North for the Packers.
The Seahawks also once had control of the NFC's two seed, but lost three of their last six games to fall behind Atlanta in the standings. In the process they suffered their first blowout loss in nearly 100 games, a 38-10 defeat at the hand of Green Bay, and also lost a must-win home game to division rival Arizona that all but guaranteed they would need four playoff wins, not three, to win another Lombardi Trophy.
Recent history doesn't offer much insight or information into how this game might play out. The Lions and Seahawks have played just twice since Russell Wilson was drafted in 2012. Those two games were very exciting though. In Week 8 of Wilson's rookie year, the Lions prevailed 28-24 in a game that saw six lead changes, including a game-winning touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Titus Young with 20 seconds to go. Then in Week 4 of last year, Stafford nearly did it again with a completion to Calvin Johnson that would have been a go-ahead touchdown, but Kam Chancellor knocked the ball out of Johnson's hands at the goal line (in a controversial manner) to preserve a 13-10 Seattle win.
This game will pit against each other two quarterbacks whose playoff resumes could hardly be more different. Matthew Stafford, the first overall draft pick in 2009, has never won a playoff game -- he will get his third chance at a victory this weekend. Russell Wilson, meanwhile, has gone 7-3 in the playoffs, with at least one postseason victory in each of his four seasons. Nothing lasts forever though, and Stafford still has plenty of time to turn things around -- though he has three more years' experience than Wilson, the two were both born in 1988. With Seattle's offense highly erratic and its defense collapsing down the stretch, Stafford could exploit a team that looks very vulnerable -- unless his own faulty defense fails to give him a chance at another fourth-quarter comeback.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
The Seahawks offense will look familiar to those we have seen in each of their recent playoff appearances. They're still going to use a lot of shotgun formations (they were in shotgun 70 percent of the time this season), usually with three wide receivers, sometimes with two wideouts and two tight ends. They're still going to use a lot of play-action (only seven teams used play-action more often this year) to get Russell Wilson on the move and out of the pocket. Speaking of which, Wilson's legs will still be a frequently used weapon. Officially he had a career-low 259 rushing yards (including kneeldowns) in 2016, but that includes 54 yards in the first half of the year when he was dealing with knee and ankle injuries, and 205 yards when he was healthier after Week 9. That's 25.6 yards per game in the second half of the year, which would still be a career low, but much closer to the 30-some yards he has averaged for most of his career. Wilson also led the NFL with 24 "Houdinis" (broken tackles in the backfield to avoid sacks) this season, and was second behind Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor in total broken tackles among quarterbacks.
The biggest change for the Seattle offense will simply be how frequently Wilson passes, and how rarely he hands off. In Wilson's first four seasons, the Seahawks never ranked lower than third in the NFL in total runs. In 2016, with Marshawn Lynch retired and the running back position beset by injuries, they ranked 20th. Instead they leaned on Wilson, who set career highs in attempts, completions, yards, and interceptions (but not touchdowns -- an indication of the team's struggles on offense this year).
When Seattle does run against Detroit, it will be Thomas Rawls getting most of the carries, though Alex Collins' role has been increasing -- he had exactly seven carries in each of the Seahawks' last three games. And that, for the most part, will be that. Christine Michael led Seattle with 469 rushing yards despite being released in November and eventually signing with Green Bay. (Which means, if the Packers and Seahawks keep winning, Seattle may have to play against its own leading rusher.) C.J. Prosise, the rushing/receiving threat who shined so bright in Seattle's win over New England, is out for at least another week with a broken shoulder blade. The bottom of the roster here is filled with late additions. Since Halloween, the Seahawks have promoted George Farmer and Terrence Magee from the practice squad, while also signing Troymaine Pope, Marcel Reece, and J.D. McKissic after they were released by the Jets, Raiders, and Falcons, respectively.
Seattle's passing game was very focused on two receivers this year: Doug Baldwin had 94 catches, Jimmy Graham had 65, and nobody else had more than 41. In particular, the ball was often forced to Baldwin, who was the target on a high number of screen plays even though they didn't work out very well. As a result, his yard per catch dipped below 10.0 seven times in 16 games. As a tight end, Jimmy Graham would theoretically catch more short routes than a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver, but Graham averaged at least 10.0 yards per catch in every game this year, and his overall season average (14.2) was much higher than Baldwin's (12.0). In fact, among Seattle's top seven receivers this season, only running back Christine Michael averaged fewer yards per catch than Baldwin.
The real changes for Seattle, though, have come on the offensive line. Seattle entered the 2016 season with the cheapest offensive line imaginable, with a total cap hit that was about 50 percent lower than any other team in the NFL. There were several individual linemen across the league who had cap hits higher than the combined total of all ten players on Seattle's line. So it's not surprising that Seattle finished last in pressure rate allowed this season, but that's nothing new -- from 2012 to 2015, Wilson ranked third, third, first, and fourth among quarterbacks in highest pressure rate.
The offensive line was always going to be a work in progress, and several key changes have been made throughout the season:
- Germain Ifedi, a first-round rookie out of Texas A&M, missed the first three games of the year with a foot injury. He played his first game in Week 4 and has started every game since.
- In Week 8, the Seahawks benched journeyman left tackle Bradley Sowell for undrafted rookie George Fant, who has started every game since.
- After Sowell was benched at left tackle, the Seahawks tried him at right tackle for three games. The experiment did not go well, and Garry Gilliam returned to the starting lineup as Sowell was benched again.
(Fant's is really one of the more amazing stories in the NFL in 2016. A basketball player at Western Kentucky, Fant played only two games of college football, and none in high school. So after only two football games in his prior eight years, he is now a starting left tackle for an NFL playoff team. Mind you, he's not a great tackle -- our old colleague Doug Farrar and his crew at Bleacher Report graded him as the least powerful left tackle in the league -- but it's still astounding to see a player with so little experience come so far, so fast.)
The other two spots on the line were much more stable -- 2015 fourth-rounder Mark Glowinski started every game at left guard, while 2014 second-rounder Justin Britt started 15 games at center. When the dust settled at the end of the year, it was clear that the Fant-Glowinski-Britt-Ifedi-Gilliam quintet was by far Seattle's best option, even if their coaches couldn't figure that out until mid-December. There's some small sample size at work here, but Seattle's offense looked radically different with those five men in the lineup than it did when any of them missed a game.
|Seattle's Best Offensive Line|
|Starting Line||Wks||Off DVOA||Rk||Pass DVOA||Rk||Run DVOA||Rk||PPG||W-L|
|Anyone Else||1-7, 12-15||-15.7%||29||-7.0%||28||-14.2%||24||19.0||6-3-1|
The difference in the run game was barely consequential, but the passing game exploded when Wilson was given any kind of protection.
It's possible that none of this will matter, though, because even at its worst Seattle's offense looks like a mismatch against Detroit's defense, which had the worst DVOA in all of the NFL. While Detroit's run defense was merely bad, the pass defense was atrocious, and last in DVOA by a clear margin. The Lions specialized in playing very, very soft coverage that took away big plays and gave up everything else. Detroit allowed opponents to gain only 10.4 yards per completion. Only Dallas gave up fewer yards per catch. The Lions made up for that, though, by allowing opponents to complete 73 percent of their passes. That is not a typo. Seventy-three percent! That's not just five percentage points worse than any other team this season, it's a full percentage point higher than any other team on record.
In addition to being last in DVOA or completion percentage allowed, the Lions were also dead last in:
- NFL passer rating allowed
- DVOA against "other" wide receivers
- DVOA against passes thrown to the offense's right
- DVOA on short passes
- DVOA against first-down passes
While being among the bottom ten defenses in:
- Touchdown rate allowed (31st)
- Interception rate (23rd)
- Net yards allowed per passing play (30th)
- Adjusted sack rate (25th)
- Pressure rate (27th)
- DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers (26th)
- DVOA against tight ends (29th)
- DVOA against running backs (29th)
- DVOA on passes to the offense's left (29th)
- DVOA on passes up the middle (26th)
- DVOA on deep passes (26th)
- DVOA against second-down passes (29th)
- DVOA against third-down passes (30th)
Detroit's defense got off to a very bad start to the year, but actually showed signs of life after linebacker Kyle Van Noy was traded to New England. Things went south in a hurry, though, when nickelback Quandre Diggs tore his pec in Week 12. That put Johnson Bademosi on the field, which was very bad news for Detroit -- Bademosi only had a 38 percent success rate in coverage this season, allowing 12.8 yards per target. He was so bad that in the Week 17 loss to Green Bay, the Lions opted to play its base 4-3 defense almost exclusively against Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay's three-wide receiver formations. Detroit's cornerbacks combined for only 157 defensive snaps in that game, 144 of them by starters Darius Slay and Nevin Lawson. Green Bay's wide receivers played a combined 248 offensive snaps in that same game.
Slay's charting numbers were worthy of top cornerback status -- he ranked 38th with a 53 percent success rate, and 14th with 6.1 yards allowed per target. But Nevin Lawson was disappointing as a full-time corner after showing promise as a nickelback in 2015. His 7.9 yards allowed per target was 58th, and his 43 percent success rate was 75th.
Detroit's corners could really use more help with their pass rush, but, well, they aren't likely to get it. Ezekiel Ansah had 30 sacks in his first three seasons, but only two this year after dealing with ankle and shoulder injuries all season. Kerry Hyder, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of Texas Tech in 2014 and played just one game in his first two seasons, led the Lions with 8.0 sacks and 20.0 hurries, but he was just 29th and 41st in the league in those two categories.
DeAndre Levy, once one of the NFL's top linebackers, played only five games this season after playing just one game in 2015 (though he could return to play against Seattle this weekend). With Tahir Whitehead in his place and a heavy rotation of defensive linemen, the Lions run defense would have been a weakness on many teams, but in Detroit it was a clear strength. The Lions were 23rd in run defense DVOA and 21st in adjusted line yards. They were weak at the point of attack though, ranking next to last in short-yardage runs and 29th in stuff rate. With so many defenders playing off the ball, they did a decent job at preventing big runs, ranking 15th in open field yards allowed. Seattle's running backs also ranked 15th in open field yards gained, so this could be a matchup between the occasionally irritating force and the cumbersome but not insurmountable object.
Really, though, that's not likely to be a huge factor in the game. The Seahawks were more of a passing team in 2016 than they have been in a long time, and facing a secondary this flimsy, they should be even more pass-wacky come Saturday night.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
In some ways, Detroit's offense is surprisingly similar to Seattle's, but more extreme. They also strongly favor shotgun formations, using shotgun more often than any offense except San Francisco. They are even more pass-oriented, ranking 11th in pass attempts but 31st in runs, in part because, like the Seahawks, they have suffered injuries at the running back position. Like Seattle, their leading receiver is on the small side for a wideout, and they prominently feature their tight end. And while Matt Stafford isn't Russell Wilson, he runs more than you probably think he does -- he had at least 10 yards ten times this season, averaging 12.9 rushing yards per game in 2016 and 7.8 yards per game in his career.
Some of the differences between the two offenses are that the Lions don't use a play-fake very often (just 22nd in usage of play-action), they rely more on short passes (53 percent of their passes were thrown to receivers within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, compared to 48 percent for the Seahawks), and they have been better at protecting their quarterback (though still below average, ranking 21st in pressure rate allowed). The biggest difference, though, might be diversity in the passing game. In addition to lead receiver Golden Tate and tight end Eric Ebron, the Lions also rely heavily on super-sized veteran wideout Anquan Boldin and free agent speedster Marvin Jones. It's a nice quartet of weapons with clearly defined roles in the offense. Tate, with his ability to gain yards after the catch, is the primary target, while Boldin made for an effective short-yardage and red zone weapon -- he led the Lions with eight touchdown catches, and also led the team in targets with 7 yards or less to go for a first down -- if not an explosive play threat, with just 8.7 yards per catch. That's OK, though, because the team had Jones to run deep routes. In his first year in Detroit, the former Bengals wideout was fifth in the league with 16.9 yards per catch.
The Lions' wideouts make an interesting case for how total receptions can be an overrated statistic. Tate led the group with 91 catches, followed by Boldin with 67 and then Jones with 55. Check our wide receiver page, though, and you'll find Jones 20th in DYAR, Boldin 38th, and Tate 48th. Such is the power of big plays and touchdowns.
Detroit's running game was pretty much lost for the year when Ameer Abdullah was put on injured reserve with a foot injury in September. Receiving specialist Theo Riddick got a career-high eight starts and led the team with 357 rushing yards, but now he is out for the season as well with a wrist injury. That leaves the team with two running backs who combined for just 599 rushing yards on the season: Zach Zenner (334 yards) and Dwayne Washington (265), who will be familiar to Seattle fans after playing his college ball across town at the University of Washington. The Lions, as a team, only had three 100-yard rushing games all year -- and two of those were in Weeks 1 and 2 when Abdullah was playing.
Public perception will tell you that this offense will be playing against a defense that has been great in recent years but is suffering a down season. That is technically true, but not perfectly accurate. It would be more precise to say that the Seahawks defense was still one of the league's best for 11 weeks in 2016, but then fell apart after Earl Thomas missed a game against Tampa Bay, then was lost for the season with a broken leg against Carolina.
It's almost impossible to express just how dominant Thomas has been in Seattle, or what his presence has meant for the Seahawks defense, but we're going to try. The following table shows what Seattle's defense looked like before Thomas arrived in 2009, and the effect he had on the team in his first six seasons with the Seahawks, a stretch in which Thomas started every game. We have then listed the 2016 season, and then split it into Weeks 1 to 11, when Thomas started every game, and Weeks 12 to 17, when Thomas was limited to just 17 snaps against Carolina. As you can see, the run defense was still excellent, but the pass defense fell from one of the best in the league to one of the very worst over the season's last six weeks.
|Seahawks Defense, With And Without Earl Thomas, 2009-2016|
|Year||Earl?||Total DVOA||Rank||Pass DVOA||Rank||Run DVOA||Rank||DMCs*|
|2016, Wks 1-11||Yes||-15.7%||3||-6.8%||5||-26.3%||3||2|
|2016, Wks 12-17||No**||-1.2%||16||28.6%||30||-27.7%||2||5|
|* Completions allowed to the deep middle area of the field.
** Thomas played 17 snaps in Week 13 against Carolina.
In ten games with Earl Thomas, the 2016 Seahawks allowed 7.0 yards per pass with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. In six games without him, they allowed 7.8 yards per pass with eight touchdowns and two interceptions. And that wasn't against Tom Brady or Drew Brees -- aside from Aaron Rodgers, none of the quarterbacks Seattle played in those six games finished higher than 16th in passing DVOA. Speaking of Rodgers, by completion percentage he had his best game of the year against the Seahawks without Earl Thomas. So did Colin Kaepernick. So did Jameis Winston. Again, there is some issue with small sample sizes here, but these numbers are definitely not a good sign for Seattle.
Without Thomas taking away the deep middle and a good chunk of the deep sidelines, Seattle's cornerbacks gave up tons of big plays. Top corner Richard Sherman was still very effective play-to-play -- his 57 percent success rate ranked 20th among cornerbacks -- but he gave up 9.1 yards per target, which was 76th. DeShawn Shead, the other starter, was even worse -- 77th in success rate at 43 percent, and 74th in yards allowed per target at 8.8. (In a related note, Seattle's defense was 30th in DVOA against No. 2 receivers.) Nickelback Jeremy Lane actually had the best charting numbers (54 percent success rate, 7.0 yards allowed per target), but the message is still clear: Seattle's pass defense isn't nearly as fearsome as it used to be, and whomever is matched up with Shead in coverage should get the (I'm sorry) lion's share of the targets.
The other specific weakness in Seattle's Thomas-free defense is the deep middle area of the field. Deep middle passes have not been a particular strength for Stafford in the past, but he has been better than average -- in the past three seasons, he has ranked ninth, 16th, and ninth among qualified quarterbacks in DVOA on passes deep and up the middle.
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With so many options on offense, and so many holes on defense, it sounds like Stafford could have a field day on Saturday, but this assumes he will have time to throw, and that is no guarantee. The Seahawks ranked 11th in pressure rate this season. Michael Bennett was limited to 5.0 sacks in 11 games, but Frank Clark had 10.0 and Cliff Avril, 11.5. Avril also added 32.5 pressures, while Clark (17.5), Bennett (16), and Cassius Marsh (14) were all in the top 90 in that category as well. This is a deep group of pass rushers that would be trouble for the Detroit line if it was at full strength -- and offensive tackle Riley Reiff could miss the game with a hip injury.
That leaves us with Seattle's run defense -- which was one of the best we have ever measured. The Seahawks had a run defense DVOA below zero (meaning, good run defense) in every game this year. Bobby Wagner led the NFL with 167 tackles, but missed only 12.
The Lions only ran the ball 36 percent of the time this season. Given the relative strengths of their offense and the opposing defense this weekend, they'd be wise to cut that figure at least in half. Every time they hand the ball off is a win for Seattle.
Big edge for Detroit here, even bigger than it first appears based on the overall DVOA rankings. Tyler Lockett had 29 of 30 punt returns for Seattle this season, and 23 of of 35 kickoff returns, and Seattle finished in the top ten in both categories. But Lockett is out for the year after breaking his leg against Arizona. The Seahawks signed Devin Hester to handle returns throughout the playoffs, but this is 2016, not 2006, and there is a reason Hester was freely available. The Seahawks were strong on kickoffs, but punter Jon Ryan (26th in gross average) and kicker Steven Hauschka (who missed four field goals and six extra points) both struggled more than usual.
As for the Lions, they were slightly below average on kickoffs and kickoff returns. But Matt Prater was 14-of-15 on field goals within 40 yards, Sam Martin was fourth in gross punting average, and Andre Roberts had a pair of touchdowns on punt returns.
We talked about Matt Stafford's string of comeback wins this year, and also mentioned Stafford's comebacks in both of his last games against Seattle (hey, it's not his fault Johnson fumbled at the goal line). What we haven't mentioned is the Seahawks' penchant for blowing leads -- between the regular season and playoffs they have given up 17 fourth-quarter comebacks in the past five seasons, including six last season alone. If this game is close in the fourth quarter, there are going to 67,000-plus very nervous people on the shores of Puget Sound.
But that is a big "if." Even without Earl Thomas, the Seahawks have been much, much better on defense than the Lions, by a wide enough margin that they are solid favorites despite their offense's struggles. Add in that home-field advantage, playoff experience, and the fact they have fewer injury questions heading into the game, and it seems likely the Seahawks will be able to get Wilson his eighth playoff win, while denying Stafford his first.
New York Giants at Green Bay
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There are 12 teams in the NFL playoffs. Two of those teams were near the bottom of the league in DVOA and two others are stuck using backup quarterbacks right now. That leaves eight teams that we can consider realistic Super Bowl contenders. Only one game on wild-card weekend features two of these teams. The Giants and Packers present a matchup of strength against strength and weakness against weakness, and no matter what, one of the hottest teams in the NFL over the last few weeks is going to see its season end on Sunday.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
Before we get into how the Giants offense matches up with the Packers defense, take a look at that New York Giants week-to-week graph. That is a thing of beauty right there. That is the best possible illustration of what it means to be the most consistent team in DVOA history. However, you'll also notice that the incredibly consistent Giants week-to-week graph very obviously goes up at the end. The Packers aren't the only team in this game coming into the postseason hot. The Giants have played their three best games of the year over the past month, and they've played their five best games of the year over the last seven. However, the unit that has improved isn't the offense, so the specific numbers will have to wait a few paragraphs.
The Giants offense was not good in 2016. It wasn't horrible, but the presence of one superstar wide receiver helped hide the fact that the whole thing was just a blah, beige mess. The Giants were below average both passing and rushing, and they were below average on all three downs. There was no improvement on this side of the ball: the Giants offense ranked 22nd in DVOA through Week 9 and 23rd in DVOA for Weeks 10-17. The only split that stands out as particularly strong is second-and-short, where their DVOA ranked third in the NFL.
The problems with the Giants offense start with the decline of quarterback Eli Manning. Manning is 36 years old now. Almost all veteran quarterbacks have started to decline by that age. Just because Manning's brother didn't start to decline until the middle of his age-38 season doesn't mean that Eli will last that long as well. Manning ranked in the top ten for passing DYAR every year from 2009 to 2012, but he hasn't returned to the top ten since. He ranked 18th last year and 20th this year. Manning's accuracy was notably off, and he was sailing passes over receivers' heads to an extent unmatched since his early days with Plaxico Burress. Manning's total of 15 interceptions actually understates this year's accuracy problems. Final totals may still change as we check over charting, but right now, Manning has 12 dropped interceptions and another 2 which were "defensed" by his receivers to prevent an interception. When our final totals are in, Manning will likely lead the league in adjusted interceptions.
(Brief digression: Philip Rivers led the NFL with 21 interceptions but SIS only charted him with one dropped pick. That's some bad luck right there, kids.)
Some of Manning's decline can be explained through the struggles of the players around him, but are those problems perhaps overstated? The charting stats on New York's pass protection are very counterintutive. Watch any Giants game, and you'll come away saying that the Giants offensive line can't protect Manning at all. What always stands out are a couple of egregious blown blocks by left tackle Ereck Flowers. Things aren't much better on the right side, mostly manned by 2015 seventh-round pick Bobby Hart and occasionally Packers castoff Marshall Newhouse. And yet... the Giants offense had the seventh lowest pressure rate in the league according to SIS charting. Charting pressure is subjective, so would you like another opinion? OK, the Giants had the fourth lowest pressure rate in the league according to ESPN Stats & Info charting. The Giants also ranked second in the league in adjusted sack rate, trailing only Oakland. Flowers is certainly a problem, yet SIS only charted him with 12 specific blown blocks on pass plays, lower than 35 other offensive linemen this year. Hart actually charted with more, at 13. There's certainly a partial explanation here that Ben McAdoo's West Coast-oriented scheme gives Manning faster throws and thus subjects him to less pressure. But it's also possible that the Giants' pass protection over the course of an entire game really is better than most of us realize; when someone screws up, they screw up so egregiously that we all tweet about it and remember it instead of remembering the plays where Manning had an OK pocket and just overthrew his receiver.
Green Bay has a strong record of getting to the opposing quarterback, ranking sixth in the league in adjusted sack rate. The overall pressure is not quite as impressive -- SIS has them 13th in pressure rate -- but it was spread around among multiple pass-rushers. SIS counted five different defenders with at least 10 hurries. Datone Jones led with 19.5, Nick Perry had 17.5, Mike Daniels 15.5, Clay Matthews 15, and Julius Peppers 14.
Eli Manning was only blitzed 17.9 percent of the time this year; only Drew Brees was blitzed less often. However, the Packers were very good blitzing. They allowed 8.0 yards per pass with just four pass rushers, more than any other team in the NFL. But they allowed just 5.9 yards per pass with five or more pass rushers, although there's an interesting split there (5.5 with five pass rushers, 7.4 with six or more, which was about one-third as often as five).
Manning's 2016 decline can also be partially blamed on the struggles of his receivers, although again there's a chicken-and-egg argument here. However, it's hard to argue that Manning has a lot of talent to throw to once we get past Odell Beckham Jr. -- who actually had a slightly negative receiving DVOA this year, mostly because Manning was forcing him the ball so much. Rookie Sterling Shepard had a reasonable but unspectacular rookie year, with a DVOA rating similar to Beckham's. Victor Cruz will never be the player he once was before injuries, and came out as a replacement-level receiver in our metrics. The tight end position is a minimal weapon, with Will Tye ranking 40th out of 46 tight ends in receiving DYAR, and with Shane Vereen on the sidelines, none of the Giants' running backs is a particularly strong receiving threat.
The name Odell Beckham Jr. calls up memories of acrobatic leaping catches of deep shots down the field, so you might be surprised to learn just how much the Giants use Beckham on short passes in the middle of the field. Beckham was listed as the intended receiver on 49 "short middle" passes this season, more than any other wide receiver in the league. In the first Packers-Giants game, nine of Beckham's 13 targets were in the short middle, and only one was deep (16 or more yards through the air). Damarious Randall was out for that game, so Beckham was mostly covered by Quinten Rollins; this game will be the opposite. Eli Manning was far better throwing in the short middle of the field this year, no matter who was the target: Manning had 38.0% DVOA and 8.1 yards per pass on passes to the short middle, but -5.1% DVOA and 6.3 yards per pass on all other passes (sacks not included). The short middle is not a particular weakness for the Packers defense, but it isn't a strength either: they rank 22nd on these passes, exactly the same rank as their pass defense overall.
So who's going to be covering Beckham? That's where we get into the good news for the Giants offense. The Green Bay secondary has been decimated by injury. Ladarius Gunter, who has started 15 games, started the season as the Packers' No. 5 cornerback. With Quinten Rollins on the sideline recovering from a concussion, the Packers will have only two pure cornerbacks who were targeted on more than two passes this season: Damarious Randall and Gunter. Their third cornerback will be safety/nickelback hybrid Micah Hyde, and after that they're limited to undrafted rookies Josh Hawkins and Herb Waters (a practice-squad player who will be active for the first time all season on Sunday).
The secondary injuries are the main reason the Packers have been horrible covering wide receivers this season. Our defense vs. types of receivers table separates coverage into No. 1, No. 2, and "other" receivers, but combine all three categories and Green Bay was 31st in the league covering wide receivers. (Detroit was dead last.) The Packers allowed 8.86 yards per pass to wideouts, worst in the league and a full yard above the NFL average. Things are better against tight ends (seventh) and running backs as receivers (15th), giving Manning even less of a reason to go looking for Tye.
SIS charting stats have the fairly unknown Gunter as the better of Green Bay's starting cornerbacks, with 54 percent success rate (32nd of 84 qualifying cornerbacks) and 7.7 yards per pass (54th). Randall came out this season with a 46 percent success rate (69th) and 9.2 yards allowed per pass (74th). Micah Hyde is not listed on our cornerback charting page because we have him classified as a safety, but he did allow 6.8 yards per pass with a 49 percent success rate covering mostly shorter routes. The Packers allow a lot of yards after the catch (5.3 yards on average, 26th in the NFL) although that's not because of bad tackling. In fact, despite the problems in the secondary, Green Bay was tied for the fewest broken tackles in the league this year by Sports Info Solutions charting. (The Giants were average in this category on offense.)
The passing game may match weakness against weakness, but the ground game looks like a mismatch. The biggest problem for the Giants is that they love to run the ball where they run it worst. They run up the middle on 68 percent of carries, third in the NFL, and they rank 28th in adjusted line yards on carries up the middle. (Green Bay's defense ranks 10th.) The Giants need to get off the habit of just running Rashad Jennings up into the line for 2 yards on first down. DVOA numbers back this up: the Giants rank 13th passing but 30th running the ball on first down, while the Packers defense ranks 12th against the run but 31st against the pass. As Cian Fahey pointed out in his Film Room column this week, the Giants need to get Paul Perkins on the field more and let him cut to the outside to try to make yardage on the ground.
The Giants may have more luck running up the middle when they only need a yard or 2. The Packers had a surprising weakness against short-yardage runs, allowing a 72 percent conversion rate (30th in the NFL). Overall, the Packers were dead last in defensive DVOA on third-and-short.
The Giants also need to keep the threat of the run in order to keep the threat of play-action. "The threat" doesn't require actually handing off that much, but it requires having a back in the backfield rather than an empty set. The Giants didn't run play-action much -- they were 29th in the league in frequency -- but they averaged 8.1 yards per pass with play-action compared to 6.1 yards per pass without. Green Bay allowed 9.2 yards per pass with play-action and 7.0 yards per pass without; that gap of 2.2 yards per pass was seventh in the NFL.
One final note on this side of the ball: There are positive signs when it comes to the Giants turning drives into seven points instead of three. Their offense was better in the red zone (11th) than it was overall, and the Packers struggled in the red zone (27th in defensive DVOA), especially against the pass (28th).
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Aaron Rodgers is red hot, but you knew that already. However, did you know that the Giants' stellar defense has also improved in the second half of the season? Take a look at the splits here, looking at Green Bay's six-game winning streak and splitting New York's numbers at their Week 8 bye:
|Green Bay Offensive DVOA, Weeks 1-11 vs. Weeks 12-17|
|GB Weeks 1-11||5.0%||12||14.1%||16||-3.9%||15|
|GB Weeks 12-17||36.7%||1||64.1%||1||15.0%||3|
|New York Giants Defensive DVOA, Weeks 1-7 vs. Weeks 9-17|
|NYG Weeks 1-7||-5.8%||9||2.9%||10||-18.2%||8|
|NYG Weeks 9-17||-23.5%||1||-17.3%||3||-31.8%||1|
The Giants' fantastic defensive improvement this year came in both the pass rush and the secondary, but the pass-rushing stats are particularly interesting. The Giants are one of a number of teams this year with a significant dichotomy between pressure rate and adjusted sack rate. The Giants had 35 sacks this year, which matches the NFL average. Their adjusted sack rate was a bit lower, 23rd, because only three teams faced more pass plays. However, the Giants' pressure rate according to Sports Info Solutions charting was sixth in the NFL at 25.5 percent. Certainly, that matches conventional wisdom on the Giants pass rush more than an adjusted sack rate ranking of 23rd.
The Packers are thought to have a good pass-blocking line, and they ranked 11th in adjusted sack rate, but the SIS charting suggests that the blocking is not quite as strong as the reputation. The Packers allowed pressure on 24.4 percent of pass plays, which ranked them 24th in the NFL. Certainly those numbers suggest that the Giants will be able to pressure Aaron Rodgers more than they did in the first meeting.
Then again, the Giants probably pressured Rodgers more than you realized when you watched that first game. If you go back to watch it on NFL Game Pass, you will notice Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth spent the entire night constantly remarking on how much time Aaron Rodgers had to throw the ball. But over the course of the whole game, we marked the Giants with pressure on 23.4 percent of pass plays, which isn't that far off from the season average for either the Giants defense or the Packers offense.
The trick for Green Bay in preventing the pressure is knowing where it is coming from. And for the most part, it's coming from Olivier Vernon. The free-agent addition led SIS charting with 53.5 hurries, 10 more than any other defender in the league. He was also way, way ahead of the rest of the Giants defenders. Although Jason Pierre-Paul had 22.5 hurries, Johnathan Hankins led all currently active Giants defenders with only 10.
The Giants generated pressure 26 percent of the time with just four pass rushers, which ranked fourth in the NFL. However, thanks in part to the strength of this year's secondary -- we'll get to them in a minute -- the Giants' pass defense was even better with a blitz, allowing 6.6 yards per play with four but 5.7 yards with five and 5.5 yards with six or more. Rodgers, interestingly, struggled against only three pass rushers (5.0 yards per pass). He was very good against four (7.3) and five (7.7) pass rushers. Against a big blitz of six or more, his yards per pass were down to 5.8, but that was basically because he checked down instead of throwing deep; the Packers still had a good 58 percent success rate when big-blitzed. Nobody in the NFL gets out of a blitz situation and makes an impossible-looking throw on the run quite like Aaron Rodgers.
The success of the Giants' pass rush fed into the success of the cornerbacks, and vice versa. New York's top two cornerbacks were phenomenal in our game charting, and the yards allowed per pass numbers are particularly striking since they covered a lot of deep passes. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ended the season No. 1 in both yards allowed per pass (3.5) and success rate (77 percent). The average pass with DRC in coverage went 15.5 yards in the air, third in the league for qualifying cornerbacks. DRC passed teammate Janoris Jenkins in the final month, but Jenkins was the one leading our charting stats for most of the year. He ended up with 5.5 yards allowed per pass (eighth) and 70 percent success rate (third). His average pass went 14.6 yards in the air (ninth).
Things were not quite so good for rookie nickelback Eli Apple, to put it mildly. Apple allowed 9.7 yards per pass, which was 79th out of 84 qualifying corners. He had a 41 percent success rate, which was 78th. Aaron Rodgers, of course, is going to see this on film, so I would expect him to be targeting Apple in coverage early and often.
It's hard to know what to make of Green Bay's receivers. Their numbers are strong this year, but again, there's the chicken-and-egg argument. Our scout-in-residence, Cian Fahey, certainly is not a fan of Davante Adams even though many observers felt Adams took a big step forward this year.
— Cian O'Fathaigh (@Cianaf) January 6, 2017
What numbers show is that the Green Bay receivers have trouble with drops. SIS counted eight drops each for Adams and Jordy Nelson, which would be tied for ninth in the NFL this season. (Subscription required.)
One Green Bay playmaker worth watching is the inconsistent tight end Jared Cook, who missed the first game between these teams with an injury. The Giants are in the top 10 in every category of our "defense vs. types of receivers" rankings except tight ends, where they rank 26th. Landon Collins had a DPOY-worthy season, but he's not used to covering tight ends that often. However, the Packers couldn't do anything with this in the first game. With Cook sidelined, Green Bay's other tight end, Richard Rodgers, had just one catch on five targets for 6 yards.
The Green Bay running game was a big reason for the offense's decline in the middle of the season, disappearing after Eddie Lacy's injury until the Packers moved Ty Montgomery into the backfield a few weeks ago. Although he didn't have enough runs to qualify for our ranking, Montgomery's 17.4% DVOA would tie Le'veon Bell for fifth place, and his 55 percent success rate would rank sixth. The Packers will also mix in Christine Michael and fullback Aaron Ripkowski, who surprisingly got most of the carries against Detroit in Week 17. Big Blue's front seven isn't spectacular against the run, just 16th in adjusted line yards, but the secondary did an excellent job of preventing big highlight runs (No. 2 in second-level yards per carry, and No. 4 in open-field yards per carry). Landon Collins was second in the NFL among safeties in both run tackles (59) and run stops (36), trailing only Jacksonville's Jonathan Cyprien in both categories.
The Packers have a particularly good chance of making big plays on the down-and-distance where big plays are most prevalent: second-and-short. The Giants' defense ranks in the top ten for every down-and-distance combination except second-and-short (1 or 2 yards), where they rank just 31st. Having that small distance to go makes a huge difference, as the Giants rank No. 2 on second-and-medium and No. 1 on second-and-long. Part of the issue here is that the Giants had the NFL's largest gap on defense between play-action passes (9.2 yards per pass, 28th) and other passes (5.7 yards per pass, second behind Denver). But can Green Bay take advantage? The Packers actually averaged fewer yards per pass with play-action (6.3) than without (6.9), one of only five teams to see yards per pass drop with play-action. In the first meeting of these teams, Green Bay's trend won out, as the Packers used play-action more than in any other game this season, but Rodgers averaged only 5.1 yards per pass. He completed just 50 percent of these passes and had one of his two interceptions (on a third-and-6 pass to Adams in the second quarter.)
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There's always a chance of any NFL contest featuring a game-changing play on special teams, but it's not very likely with these two squads. Green Bay and New York both had very average special teams this year, both mediocre in most areas, but struggling in one specific portion of the game. For the Giants, that was punt returns, where only Jacksonville was worse. Dwayne Harris had two fumbles and didn't have a return longer than 17 yards, but he has a long track record before this season as a good punt returner. (He also returns kickoffs.) For the Packers, the problem area was on kickoffs. Without considering onside tries or end-of-half squibs, the Packers had a net average of just 37.9 yards on kickoffs, the lowest figure in the NFL. (Average was 40.2 yards.) Essentially, even Mason Crosby's shorter kickoffs had longer than average returns.
Micah Hyde has returned punts for Green Bay the last few weeks; sixth-round rookie Todd Davis had the team's two longest returns of the season but has barely seen the field since Week 10. Ty Montgomery is the main kick returner, though they have used Christine Michael and Jeff Janis as well.
New York's Robbie Gould stands out a bit for going 10-for-10 on field goals once he replaced Josh Brown as the Giants' kicker, but that's a small sample and he did miss two extra points against Chicago in Week 11.
Injuries mean the rosters for this game don't quite match the rosters for the Week 5 game that Green Bay won 23-16. Rashad Jennings was out for the Giants, and since Paul Perkins was still struggling with pass protection, the main running backs were Bobby Rainey and Orleans Darkwa. The Packers still had Eddie Lacy and Ty Montgomery was still a wide receiver. There was no Jared Cook to take advantage of the Giants' weakness against tight ends, and the secondary had Quinten Rollins and not Damarious Randall instead of the other way around.
Nonetheless, the basic narrative of that Week 5 game is most likely going to be the basic narrative of this wild-card contest. New York's defense is really, really good. It's going to be hard for Aaron Rodgers to put up another huge game with 300 yards and four touchdown passes. But can Eli Manning and the Giants defense really outscore the Packers, even with so much help from the defense? The Giants build their passing game around the short pass, which makes it tougher for them to take advantage of the weaknesses in the Packers secondary. The running game will likely keep Manning in tough down-and-distance situations. The Giants are certainly not a team to be written off, not with this defense, but the Packers should be favored to win at home on Sunday.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.