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09 Aug 2011

Four Downs: AFC North

by Danny Tuccitto

Baltimore Ravens: Who will catch their play-action passes?

Going back to 2008, our game charting database shows one consistent tendency of John Harbaugh's offense: reliance on play-action passing. In Brian Billick's last season as head coach, Baltimore ranked 20th in play-action passing frequency. Since hiring Harbaugh, they've used play-action more than any other offense in the NFL, ranking first, third, and first in 2008, 2009, and 2010, respectively.

Strategically speaking, the play-action pass is all about deception. It requires the defense to read and react to run, and at least one receiver capable of exploiting that mental error. With Ray Rice, newly signed fullback Vonta Leach, and a powerful run-blocking offensive line, Baltimore definitely has a good enough running game to achieve the first part. The question for 2011 is whether or not they have the second.

For the past three seasons, the ageless Derrick Mason was that receiver on the outside, and -- when healthy -- Todd Heap was that player down the seam. Both are no longer with the team. In fact, of their top four pass-catchers in 2010, the lowest of the four in yards per catch is the only one who remains on the roster: Anquan Boldin.

Rookie second-rounder Torrey Smith is currently projected to replace Mason in the starting lineup. Having run the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds at the combine, Smith certainly has the speed to take advantage of safeties peeking into the backfield on play action. The problem is that, on top of the poor history of rookie wide receivers in general, Smith was viewed by scouts as a raw talent heading into the draft. Therefore, his learning curve figures to be steep, especially in mental aspects of pass offense like selling a play action.

2010 third-rounder Ed Dickson will be taking over for Heap. We ranked Dickson as this season's 19th-best NFL prospect, so, like Smith, the talent and opportunity are there. However, as we noted, Dickson's weakness thus far is as a run-blocker. In a pass offense predicated on making the defense think it's running, that skill is important; and it's one that Heap became a master at over time.

Cincinnati Bengals: Will the run offense be good enough to take pressure off of their rookie quarterback?

Continuing an accelerating NFL trend in recent years, all indications are that the Bengals will start rookie quarterback Andy Dalton immediately. The good news for Cincinnati is that Dalton is unlikely to be the 2011 version of David Klingler or Akili Smith. To wit, our Lewin Career Forecast projection model identified Dalton as the best quarterback prospect in April's draft. However, the bad news is that it's unclear whether or not the Bengals have a good enough run offense to parlay a rookie starter into a winning season.

It's often been said that a good running game is a rookie quarterback's best friend. In this case, stats agree with the conventional wisdom. Since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002, there have been 12 quarterbacks who started 10 or more games in their rookie season. If you look at their teams' winning percentages in those starts, you find that they're highly dependent on the quality of their run offense; to an extent that far exceeds the importance of a good running game to non-rookies:

Rookie QB Team Year Rush Offense
B.Roethlisberger PIT 2004 5 13-0
J.Flacco BAL 2008 9 11-5
M.Ryan ATL 2008 19 11-5
V.Young TEN 2006 13 8-5
Sanchez NYJ 2009 11 8-7
Bradford STL 2010 31 7-9
B.Leftwich JAC 2003 15 5-8
M.Leinart ARI 2006 31 4-7
D.Carr HOU 2002 32 4-12
Harrington DET 2002 30 3-9
Stafford DET 2009 29 2-8
J.Clausen CAR 2010 32 1-9

Aside from franchise miracle-workers Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford, the trend in the table is as clear as a 12-quarterback sample is going to get: In today's NFL, if a team wants to win games with a rookie quarterback, they likely need to have an efficient running game. Statistics aside, though, this makes perfect sense from a pure football perspective as well. The more efficiently a team can gain yards on the ground, the less they have to rely on an inefficient passer-in-training to gain them.

After re-signing center Ryan Cook, left guard Nate Livings, right tackle Dennis Roland, and running back Cedric Benson, the Bengals enter 2011 with the same run offense contributors as they had in 2010. Continuity is usually a good thing. In Cincinnati's case, however, they're continuing with players who produced the NFL's fourth-worst run offense last season, most of the blame for which falls on Benson. Out of 23 running backs who carried the ball more than 200 times in 2010, Benson was next-to-last in DYAR. Furthermore, except for 2009, he's ranked no higher than 42nd in DYAR among all qualifying backs over the past four seasons.

Cleveland Browns: Is this the year they've finally fixed their run defense?

At the very least, you have to give the Browns an "A" for effort. Since the franchise resurfaced in 1999, Cleveland has ranked higher than 20th in run defense DVOA exactly once (2002). Seemingly the entire time, they've tried everything in their power to improve.

In terms of scheme, they started out with Romeo Crennel coordinating a 4-3 under head coach Chris Palmer, then had Foge Fazio and Dave Campo coordinate a 4-3 under Butch Davis, then brought Crennel back to install a 3-4 as head coach, and then hired the duo of Eric Mangini and Rob Ryan to fix Crennel's 3-4. None of it worked.

From a personnel perspective, the past 12 seasons have essentially been a Keystone Kops routine. Aside from 2002, Cleveland's front office was never able to put together a defensive middle that (a) perfectly fit their scheme, (b) stayed in town for more than a year or two, and (c) avoided injury. In 1999 and 2000, they only had one good defensive tackle (Gerard Warren). In 2001, 2003, and 2004, they had two good defensive tackles (Warren and Orpheus Roye), but didn't have a good middle linebacker. In 2005, Crennel stubbornly switched to a 3-4 despite minimal talent at nose tackle and inside linebacker. From 2006 to 2008, they found one good inside linebacker (D'Qwell Jackson), but nothing else. Finally, the past two seasons have seen them acquire talent at nose tackle (Shaun Rogers and Ahtyba Rubin), but lose Jackson to consecutive season-ending pectoral tears.

Thankfully for Browns fans, things are looking up for the run defense in August 2011. Mike Holmgren got rid of Mangini's ill-suited 3-4 by hiring Dick Jauron, a master of the 4-3, as the team's defensive coordinator. In the draft, Holmgren selected Baylor's Phil Taylor to anchor the defensive interior alongside Rubin. On the injury front, Jackson is finally healthy, and will be starting at middle linebacker.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Will Hines Ward's replacement please stand up?

In our Valentine's Day edition of Plugging the Holes, we expressed some concerns about Hines Ward. Namely, we mused about whether or not, as a 35-year-old wide receiver coming off his worst season in recent memory, Ward is done as a major contributor to the perennial Super Bowl contender. That was before news of his offseason thumb surgery. With the rest of the starting offense not suffering from the same age affliction, and the defense poised for another age-defying run, we see no reason to move away from Ward's situation as Pittsburgh's biggest hole.

Complicating things is the fact that Ward's likely replacement, Emmanuel Sanders, just underwent his third foot surgery of the offseason. Of course, as we said in February, even if he's somehow able to get healthy by Week 1, Sanders's skill set -- along with that of fellow youngster Antonio Brown -- is better suited to replace Mike Wallace than Ward.

All of this begs the question, "What happens to the Steelers' offense if they only have one efficient wide receiver this year?" Well, barring a free agency or waiver wire coup over the next couple of months, the first thing that'll have to go is Bruce Arians' addiction to three-or-more-receiver sets. Although it's almost always good to kick a habit, our charting stats show that the Steelers' offense has been one of the best in the NFL over the past three seasons with three or more wide receivers in the formation.

So, as was the case with the AFC North's other superpower, what we have here is a recipe for a downward spiral. If Ward is done and Sanders can't replace him, then the Steelers only have one efficient wide receiver this season. With only one efficient wide receiver, they have to move away from what the offense does best. We're not saying it's going to happen, just that it's the one thing that could derail Pittsburgh's 2011 season.

(This article previously appeared at ESPN Insider.)

Posted by: Danny Tuccitto on 09 Aug 2011

52 comments, Last at 11 Aug 2011, 2:52pm by BaronFoobarstein


by Nevic (not verified) :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 1:23pm

Isn't the table showing rookie QB records with NFL rushing rank a little like the argument that rush 25 times to win? I think the causation is the other way around. If that rank were done by rushing DVOA rank, then I'd agree.

by MJK :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 1:47pm

Beat me to it. If the rushing rank is by DVOA, I'll buy it. If it's DYAR, or worse, conventional NFL rushing rankings based on total yardage, then this is just run-to-win all over again. The table doesn't indicate...

Also, if you're going to claim that, for rookie quarterbacks, a good running game is correlated to success (wins), how about giving us the correlation coefficient or R-squared value?

by Aaron Schatz :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 2:00pm

Sorry, I clarified. It is run DVOA rank.

by tgt2 (not verified) :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 3:29pm

Isn't there still an issue. Haven't you found that running performance is tied to QB performance, and not the other way around?

by tuluse :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 3:48pm

You missed Kyle Orton 2005. Rookie and started 15 games.

Edit: A quick search on pfr, http://pfref.com/tiny/LZ423, shows that you also missed Carson Palmer and Bruce Gradkowski.

Double Edit: pfr's search doesn't work quite right, Palmer didn't play in any games his rookie year, but you did miss Orton and Gradkowski.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 1:39pm

I disagree a bit about Emmanuel Sanders. I think he's closer to a replacement for Ward than for Wallace, but lies somewhere between the two; maybe he's a replacement for Santonio Homes. He's not a speed demon, but he is a good route runner with good break and hands, and he seems to be learning the hard blocking, hard after-catch running style from Ward as well (note: that's hard running, not fast, or shifty, or necessarily always even good running). He may appear to be more Wallace than Ward because he's faster than Ward, but I think it's likely that's a matter of age rather than play-style or strength. I do find his foot surgeries quite worrying though. And I agree that Antonio Brown has shown more of the deep threat style with less polish a reliability.

A lot rests on Sanders, if his foot is okay and he matures a bit into a solid #2 receiver (not a stretch, he was very good for a rookie and showed promise), then a Wallace, Sanders, Ward triplet seems pretty good to me, even if Ward loses another step.

And speaking of holes, I'm concerned with the gaping one that the pass rusher Jonathan Scott was supposed to block just ran straight through.

by drobviousso :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 2:04pm

This, with the exception that Sanders ran a 4.41 at the combine. As you said, he also has good speed 'in pads.'

by Led :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 1:52pm

Reading this it's not a surprise that the two teams said to be interested in Jerricho Cotchery are Pittsburgh and Baltimore. He'd be a good fit on either team. He's a tough SOB, a good run blocker and, when healthy, an efficient pass catcher. He had a terrible year last year, however, due to injury and an absurd number of drops.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Thu, 08/11/2011 - 2:52pm

Cotchery just signed with the Steelers. If last years was a down year rather than a sign of things to come, it is an excellent pickup.

by ArchnerdUW :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 2:25pm

I totally disagree with the whole section on the Steelers. As several posters have pointed out, Sanders (IF healthy) should get first crack at replacing Ward's role in the offense. What hasn't been mentioned is that there is a player on the roster who is almost perfectly suited to replace Ward -- Heath Miller. The problem is that the O-line is so poor at the tackle position, that Miller is consistently asked to stay in and block. For the Steelers this year it all begins and ends with the offensive line, specifically the tackle position.

by Vicious Chicken of Bristol (not verified) :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 7:53pm

Completely agree, especially with the Miller comment. Miller has the size and the hands to catch everything in the middle.

Pittsburgh has more than enough players to catch passes, barring significant injury of course.

Not sure how someone can look at the Steelers and not pick OL, especially LT, as the biggest weakness.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 8:10pm

OL, especially LT would be my choice too, but I think you can make a case for CBs beyond #1.

by ArchnerdUW :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 8:26pm

Precisely. A preview of the Steelers season that only focuses on Hines Ward just seems short sighted and cursory at best. Granted the youth and inexperience of the WR corps did show through in the last drive in the SB. One has to wonder how things might have gone on that drive with a more effective Ward or if Santonio Holmes had been retained on the roster. But the reality is that the offense is likely never in that position (needing a game clinching two minute drill) if the offensive line or cornerback personnel had performed better up to that point in the game. If one wanted to pick one player to focus on for the Steelers this upcoming season it would have to be either Troy Polamalu and his health, as when he is healthy the crap-task-iness of the #2 and #3 corners becomes less of a problem, or the other obvious suspect is Jonathan Scott. His play will be critical, as well as his durability. There simply is not another even remotely competent LT on the roster or in camp.

by Jonah_Jamison (not verified) :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 11:37am

Lets see what second round rookie Marcus Gilbert has. He played with Pouncey at Florida, which might provide some chemistry and familiarity. They could also bring back Adams and move Colon to left tackle. There are options.

As for the corners, Tomlin and Colbert have spent 5 picks the last three years on DB's. Someone out of that group needs to separate from the pack. So far in camp, Keenan Lewis (a head case last year) has/had been playing well with the first team while Taylor is/was sidelined contractually. I think the front seven, with a defensive line and linebacker corps that are deeper and more talented than ever, should be deep enough to stave off the fourth quarter collapses that have crept in the last few years by rotating players. Signing Woodley to a long-term deal was a boon and remember the name Stevenson Sylvester. He's Farrior's understudy and was impressive in limited duty last year. As with any season, Polamalu's health is vital. He was 60% in the Super Bowl with a partially torn achilles and it cost them.

My concern is the number of reps Mendenhall had last year. When he needs a blow, the options are fan favorite The Legend of Issac Redman and Mewelde and Baron Batch. It's not a deep roster.

by ArchnerdUW :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 4:24pm

Agree with most of that. However I think that Colon or Gilbert at LT is a potentially bigger concern than Scott. Colon (before the Achilles injury) struggled with quick rushers at the RT spot. I don't think he would fare better on the left side aligned against most teams' best pass rusher. Gilbert hasn't shown anything in camp so far...but it is still early. I am hoping someone knows more than all of us fans and there is a competent young LT laying around the roster somewheres. If Scott gets hurt, which is entirely possible, the Steelers would be in serious trouble.

I am also excited about Lewis and the rest of the young DB's. Can't wait to see them in game action. I also think Sylvester is primed to be a good ILB. I hope he pushes Foote of the roster this year and Farrior next. An inside pairing of Sylvester and Timmons could be downright scary.

Running back depth is questionable at best. One can only hope that Dwyer or Clay really shows something this preseason and forces their way onto the field come the regular season. I don't hold out much hope for that though.

by Vicious Chicken of Bristol (not verified) :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 6:36pm

Zero chance of Colon moving to LT. Only a slightly larger chance of Gilbert starting there. I think the Steelers bring back either Starks or Flozell to provide a veteren option.

Agreed on Sylvester. One of the Pittsburgh beat writers (cant remember his name) suggested that he was the "next superstar LB for the Steelers". With the signing of Woodley, and Silverback, Potsy (with Sylvester spelling him), and Timmons...that is clearly still the best LB corps in the NFL. Nobody else is even close.

As for the defensive line. If both Ziggy and Cam play to their potential, that is going to be one hell of a scary defense for years to come. They just need to find Big Snack's replacement.

by Jonah_Jamison (not verified) :: Thu, 08/11/2011 - 10:06am

I think Ziggy played to his potential last year. He's the strongest player on the team, very quick off the snap. The rushing D didn't miss a beat when Aaron Smith went down, which is a big change from previous years. If memory serves, that playoff loss against Jacksonville was largely due to our inability to stop the run w/o Smith in there.

Big Snack says Ziggy's got weight room strength, but Snack is still strongest because he's got grown man strength. Hilarious.

Tough losing Baron Batch. John Clay or Jon Dwyer? Eeesh. On the plus side, Mendenhall looks sensational according to running backs coach Kirby Wilson. Is he now a top 3 fantasy pick?

by BaronFoobarstein :: Thu, 08/11/2011 - 2:50am

Baron Batch tore his ACL today and is probably out for at least the season. It's honestly not that big a loss as far as role on team goes, but I was really pulling for him. He's an interesting guy with all the personality traits you want in an NFL player. I hope the man still gets to have a career.

by dbostedo :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 11:09pm

"A preview of the Steelers season that only focuses on Hines Ward just seems short sighted and cursory at best."

It's not a preview of the season. Four downs is a regularly updated feature that just picks four issues or items of interest. Some may preview the whole team, but most have more focus.

by Theo :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 2:39pm

It's Xmas on FO with so many Four Downs!!

by BigWoody (not verified) :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 4:59pm

And only two more sleeps until (almost) real football!

by young curmudgeon :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 5:42pm

"Begs the question" does not mean the same thing as "raises the question" (although, because so many people use it that way, it eventually will.)

by Led :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 6:32pm

It already does. I don't like it either, but usage trumps all.

by Mr Shush :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 11:17am

This is one of the more unfortunate cases, though, as so far as I know we have no alternative term available for the original usage.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 1:18pm

petitio principii

by dbostedo :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 11:05pm

I've never found the need to use the original form... things like "making a bad assumption" usually suffice.

I like the newer form, as the word "begs" is generally never used as it is in the original form.

by dbostedo :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 11:06pm

Accidental double post

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 6:07pm

Bradford's 7-9 deserves a big asterisk. He played in a division won by a 7-9 team, and also got the play the Broncos, Redskins, and Panthers. StL played 8 games against teams with offenses at least as putrid as their own -- Arizona's pass attack was historically awful.

According to P-F-R, it was the 3rd easiest schedule in Rams history. Every other Rams team within a point of that SOS at least made the title game. Basically, Bradford went 7-9 against SEC-level competition.

by chemical burn :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 6:45pm

Yeah, I'm not sure why Sam Bradford is getting the hype without qualification treatment - his regular stats were pedestrian and his DVOA (-9.3.) was neighbors with the Smiths, Troy and Alex. Sure, he plays for an awful team and was a rookie, but let's not put him beside Matt Ryan's 8th ranked, 30% DVOA rookie performance. Someday, he might be good, but in 2010 Bradford was bad.

by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 7:21pm

Interesting story shaping up there in St. Louis with Josh McDaniels coming in to run the offense after crashing and burning in Denver. He'll get to concentrate solely on the offense...but the question is still out on how much (if any) of NE's success was his doing. Throw Bradford into that mix--who also may not be quite as good as people initially thought--and there are lots and lots of questions to be answered.

by chemical burn :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 8:46pm

Hm. That is fascinating. And if it works, then it only leaves more questions as far whom is responsible for what in terms of success: maybe McDaniels lucks into another sweet situation, this time with a QB prospect that many intelligent observers think is the top young prospect in the league. Or maybe he coaches up a young guy that is being over-rated somewhat... Interesting, with Detroit and the Rams, some of the awful young teams in the league are at least managing to be interesting (which is more than you can say for Oakland or Jacksonville or the Redskins...)

by tuluse :: Tue, 08/09/2011 - 9:49pm

It depends if we are talking about Bradford's ability or the value of what he produced. Because he is way better than his stats last year. He had the worst group of receivers I've ever seen.

by Mr Shush :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 11:30am

And was asked to throw an astronomical volume of passes. Bradford's 590 attempts were the 29th most ever by any quarterback, never mind the most by a rookie. Only one season of those 28 belongs to a player who didn't make at least one pro bowl (Jon Kitna) and 17 belong to players who either are or will be in Canton (Manning, Brees, Moon, Marino, Favre, Fouts, Elway, Brady, Warner). Only two other rookies (Peyton and Chris Weinke) even threw above 500. Ryan threw 434. Obviously that doesn't in and of itself guarantee he'll be good, but I definitely believe it makes adequate performance with a terrible supporting cast more impressive. I've been on the Bradford bandwagon a long time and see no reason at all to get off.

by Theo :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 11:40am

Don't you think that players destined for Canton are asked to throw more passes, as supposed that people who pass a lot end up in Canton?
I'm not saying I think Bradford won't improve and become one of the better QBs in the league, I think he will, but it won't be BECAUSE he throws a lot of passes.

by tuluse :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 12:24pm

A lot passes thrown his rookie year mean 2 things. One he was counted on more than other rookie QBs to try to win games, which means he had a harder job, which means lower per play performance is expected. Two we have a larger sample size of play with which to evaluate him.

by Dean :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 12:40pm

And 3 - the coaching staff (those who know him best) had the confidence in him to put the ball in his hands and ask him to win games. The last two QBs that have impressed me this much in their rookie years were Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning. And I still think Palmer would have been Canton-bound if Kimo VonOhlhoffen doesn't take out his knee.

by chemical burn :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 2:04pm

Look, you can all believe that Bradford will be good some day - I'm not saying I don't. But he wasn't good in 2010. His performance bad by any measure the nebulous "he looked good, his coaches trusted him, I saw potential." And I'm not saying that's totally illegitimate. But Matt Ryan put up amazing stats his rookie year, both traditional and advanced. There's a difference. Acknowledge it and we can all move on.

by tuluse :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 2:12pm

No, in the context of who his teammates were, Bradford was good. The previous year, with superior receivers, Bulger put up a -19% DVOA.

by chemical burn :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 4:29pm

And in the context of the previous year, the Falcon's main starter put up a -5.8% (a back-up played a couple games and put up a 5.5%.) Both are bigger jumps than what Bradford did. It insults what Matt Ryan accomplished to say Bradford did the same thing. Bradford played slightly bad for an awful team. Ryan played excellently for a bad team.

Why should I ignore the context: Bradford played exactly as well for his bad team Alex Smith did for the 49er's. The 49er offense could hardly be considered superior to the Rams. Someday, Bradford may play well, in 2010, he played almostly identically to Alex Smith. In 2008, Matt Ryan played as well as Drew Brees and significantly better than Kurt Warner, Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo.

by tuluse :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 4:49pm

I don't recall saying Bradford was as good his rookie year as Ryan was. I just said Bradford was good.

The 49er offense could hardly be considered superior to the Rams

I do in fact consider it superior. At least in terms of receivers available to the quarterback. That is exactly what I meant when I said the Rams had the worst group of receivers I had ever seen. I didn't mean the worst group except for the 49ers who were in the same division. You put Vernon Davis or Michael Crabtree, heck even Josh Morgan on the Rams and they are instantly the best receiver on the team. You put all 3 on the team, and I would bet Bradford would have had at least 10% DVOA.

Edit: I see now that Danny Tuccitto put them in the same category as miracle-workers. Which is a rather broad category, which just meant played well despite a bad running game.

Also, I take exception to the 2008 Falcons being called a bad team. 11-5 and a playoff birth?

And another thing, I'm a Bears fan, I lived through 2004 when their top 3 receivers were David Terrell, Bobby Wade, and a rookie Bernard Berrian. The Rams receivers were worse then this group.

by chemical burn :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 4:56pm

Well, then what are you arguing with me for? The thread began by me saying Bradford doesn't deserve the credit for his rookie season that Matt Ryan got for his. One played well and one played bad. There's a difference. If the argument is just "does l'il sammy bradford deserve a gold star for trying really hard on a bad team" then, sure, what the hell do I care? But that's different from playing well.

As for the 49er's comparison - the 49er's highest rated in DVOA receiver (Crabtree) had virtually identical DVOA to the Rams highest rated receiver in DVOA (Alexander.) All of both team's other receivers terrible DVOA. The Rams had a better running back, the 49er's a better tight end. Equal o-lines. It's pretty damn close to being a wash.

(And I never said the 2008 Falcons were a bad team.)

by tuluse :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 5:02pm

Well, then what are you arguing with me for?

Because of this

One played well and one played bad.

They both played well, one played like a hall of fame QB in his prime, while the other played like an above average QB in a terrible situation.

As for receiver, DVOA, I could really not care less. One team is receiver DVOA with Alex Smith throwing them the ball, while the other is with Bradford. Plus, the differences in coaching (one team had a scheme which was more complex than line up in the I and run full steam ahead).

Also, Alexander only played in 8 games, while Crabtree played in all 16.

Josh Morgan's DVOA isn't awful, and it's higher than every STL receiver not named Alexander.

by tuluse :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 5:03pm

"(And I never said the 2008 Falcons were a bad team.)" You wrote this, "Ryan played excellently for a bad team."

by Mr Shush :: Thu, 08/11/2011 - 9:48am

Quality of play and value of production are not the same thing - that's the whole point of this argument. DVOA does not (as FO freely admit) do a good job of identifying which individual players deserive what proporHtion of the credit for a team's performance - even a team's performance in a specific area (passing, in this case).

Ryan produced at a very high per-play level, while throwing to one of the best receivers in football (and some tolerable other guys), behind a very good line, with a quality workhorse running back being pounded down opponents' throats so that opponents weren't thinking pass as often. It's very misleading to cast him as a case of a rookie QB getting it done without a strong running game. As a result, his production was better than his play (not that his play wasn't good).

Bradford produced at a below average (though still solid for a rookie) per-play level, while throwing to an inhumanly terrible group of receivers, behind a solid line, with a normally excellent but banged up running back who wasn't used as much as he otherwise might have been and was decidedly ineffective when he was, with the result that opponents were more likely to expect a pass. His play was significantly better than his production (not that his play was by any stretch of the imagination elite).

That Ryan would develop into the good quarterback that he is rather than a great quarterback was fairly evident to anyone who actually paid attention to his rookie season instead of just looking at the per-play statistics. I think Bradford is likely to develop into a great quarterback. I think anyone who would trade Bradford straight up for Ryan is a fool.

by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 5:36pm

While Bradford might not have had hte best set of receivers, he does have a pretty good offensive line (that's looking even better with Dahl), a good running back (helped by the line) and most importantly, a good defense. Defensive strength is often overlooked as a factor for young quarterbacks but it's huge for them. It means that they don't feel the pressure to try for 28 points every game.

As someone who watched a fair few Rams games last year, I'd also add that he suffered down the stretch as safeties began to creep towards the line of scrimmage and that will continue as I don't think he has the arm strength to drive the ball on anything longer than a mid-range throw. I think this will limit his ceiling, though I will happily recognise that arm strength is very over rated in quarterbacks.

by tuluse :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 7:22pm

I agree that the Rams have a good line, but if the receivers can't get separation at all, it's only so helpful.

Also, while Stephen Jackson is a good running back, he was playing hurt last year, and the Rams ended with the 31st ranked running attack. So he wasn't getting much help from the running game.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 08/11/2011 - 9:01am

The poor performance by the running game could itself be a symptom of Bradford's relatively weak arm. Or it could be the receivers not scaring the safeties deep, it's probably a little from column A and a little from column B.

by Mr Shush :: Thu, 08/11/2011 - 9:57am

I wonder if the arm strength issue is a result of the injury, and if so, whether it's likely to get better. I certainly don't remember it being a problem during his sophomore year. No one was ever going to mistake him for Cutler or Favre (or Jamarcus), but I certainly would have said he had a better arm than, say, Drew Brees.

by Theo :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 2:53pm

and 4 - they weren't that good overall, meaning they had to pass a lot to play catch up.
And yeah, that knee injury was pretty gruesome.

by Dean :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 10:15am

The only ones who are doubting Sam Bradford are the ones who haven't been watching him play.

Barring injury, he'll be producing on a level with Brees and Rogers in 2 years. I was skeptical of him when he was drafted, but living here in STL and having seen him play week in week out, let me assure you that he is 100% legit. Bradford is a bona-fide superstar in waiting. Even Peyton Manning threw a bunch of INTs as a rookie.

by bravehoptoad :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 12:28pm

Watching that guy play scares the hell out of me, since my team has to play him twice a year for the rest of his career.

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 1:22pm

"Valentines edition of plugging the holes" made me giggle.