by Bill Barnwell
Just like the two AFC Wild Card games of a year ago, the matchups in the opening round of the AFC playoffs are both repeats of games from the regular season. And much like last year, a careful analysis of the tape from both those matchups and similar regular-season games yields trenchant nuggets of information with regards to the sequels we'll see this weekend.
Of course, these teams have something in common even across matchups. The departure of Rex Ryan from Baltimore to New York means that the Ravens and the Jets virtually run the same exact scheme; while I personally might be having nightmares of unblocked rushers coming off the edge, it provides us a larger sample of plays to look at for the Bengals and Patriots offenses. With plenty of snaps and stats crunched, it's finally time to talk about the wondrous world of the playoffs without a single cliché or ex post facto narrative.
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.
New York Jets at Cincinnati
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One rematch is fresh on everyone's mind; it was the last game of the regular season. The Jets' 37-0 drubbing of the Bengals yielded a single-game DVOA of 116.8%, the second-best performance of the year. (Number one ended up being the Patriots' victory over the Titans in Week 6, with a 134.0% DVOA.) While the talk afterwards was that the Bengals didn't really concern themselves with winning and ran a vanilla scheme, they didn't strip away their money plays to reveal a playbook that called for dropped passes, blown assignments, and getting pushed yards off the line of scrimmage. In fact, the Bengals opened up a part of the playbook that they haven't used in years. We'll talk about that scheme on defense, what the Jets did on offense to create mismatches, and how both the Bengals and Jets will change things up for the second go-around.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
What's a team to do? The Bengals were faced with a conundrum on Sunday night: Play to win with little on the line, or rest their starters with borderline injuries, dumb down the playbook, and essentially take a loss while trying to not get killed.
On defense, the Bengals mostly chose the latter. They rested three starters, DE Robert Geathers, DT Domata Peko, and S Chris Crocker. Unfortunately, they also lost two players in the process of mailing it in: DT Pat Sims fractured his forearm and will miss the remainder of the season, while rookie safety Tom Nelson suffered a knee injury and might miss this Saturday's game.
The Bengals could've used the trio, especially the two linemen. Fill-in defensive tackle Tank Johnson has been struggling with plantar fasciitis and was on rollerskates all game. Defensive end Frostee Rucker offered less resistance than, well, a Frosty.
They weren't alone in their futility, and the reason might have more to do with their scheme than the individual abilities of those players. The Bengals started off the game and spent most of the first two series in the 46 defense. In the 46, the strong-side linebacker pushes onto the line of scrimmage next to the defensive end, showing the offense a five-man front, while a safety takes his spot at linebacker depth. In most cases last Sunday, that put Keith Rivers on the line of scrimmage, and the Bengals pushed strong safety Chinedum Ndukwe into the box as an eighth man. I asked former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton if that was something he'd run in Cincinnati in the past, and he mentioned that they hadn't run it with him around since Leslie Frazier was defensive coordinator in 2004. I didn't see the Bengals use it as a base scheme at all this year, so I'm inclined to believe -- as is Thornton -- that the Bengals employed it as a show-me scheme to give the Jets something to think about heading into the playoffs, while disguising the scheme they're more likely to use in the playoffs.
They might have given the Jets more to think about if the scheme had actually worked. Rivers struggled to get off blocks at the line of scrimmage, and is clearly better when he can see the play develop and react accordingly. His absence placed the tackling onus on middle linebacker Dhani Jones, which is what the Jets were hoping for; most of their runs were up the middle with left guard Alan Faneca pulling right, and right guard Brandon Moore chipping a tackle and getting to the second level to run interference on Jones. Many of the Jets' big rushing plays over the first few series of the game were right at Jones, a famed Mike Tanier target. The Jets also used tackle Wayne Hunter as a sixth lineman to create mismatches; that kept Dustin Keller off the field, but it wasn't a problem.
It was when the Bengals were able to slow down the Jets' running game, though, that the game was truly remarkable. The first third down the Jets faced was converted with a two-yard pass from Mark Sanchez to Jerricho Cotchery that was nice and simple: Bring Cotchery in motion, roll Sanchez out, and throw a quick out to Cotchery against nickel back Morgan Trent. Easy stuff.
The Jets had six other third downs in the opening quarter. They ran the ball on every one of them. And they converted all six.
That's downright absurd. This year, only one team went 6-for-6 running the ball on third down over the course of an entire game: The Ravens did it in Week 8. No one else successfully converted that many attempts without getting stuffed on third down once. The Jets converted nine of their 12 runs on third down in the game; only three teams even attempted more than ten third-down carries in a game all year, and they weren't able to do better than 50 percent in those games.
48.9 percent of NFL rushing attempts on third down resulted in first downs; before Week 17, the Jets had converted only 41.8 percent of their third-down rushing attempts, well below that average. It's true that the Jets were more likely to run the ball to protect Sanchez on third down, as their 55 attempts before Week 17 ranked fifth in the league, but they were doing the same thing on Sunday and managed to be wildly successful. These weren't all power runs, where the Jets are the sixth-best team in the league; the Jets converted with runs from four, five, and seven yards to go, the latter of which came on a 57-yard run by Brad Smith.
Smith has shown flashes of brilliance as a Wildcat/option quarterback this year, but nothing like his performance on Sunday, where he followed that 57-yard run with a 32-yard touchdown run that saw him break the tackle of linebacker Rashad Jeanty. Unlike most teams' usage patterns, Smith also lines up under center in an exotic look: The Offset-I Formation, where Smith plays a long-forgotten position known as "quarter back". It still gets called the Wildcat for some strange reason, but Smith is far less effective under center than he is in the shotgun.
While the Jets should have an advantage over the Bengals in the running game -- Cincinnati's rushing defense has fallen from 13th in the league over the first half of the season to 26th in the second half -- all that isn't going to happen again. Getting Geathers and Peko back will be a huge boon to the Bengals' line, which was pushed around by the Jets, but teams just don't regularly convert 75 percent of their third down carries for new sets of downs, let alone go 6-for-6 at one point. If Rex Ryan has convinced himself that the Jets can just run the ball in any situation they want for successful yardage (and it appears that he might have), the Jets are going to find themselves in uncomfortable fourth down situations and/or punting.
Sanchez only converted one of the other four third downs he faced as a passer, which isn't surprising. He was more effective on first and second down, where offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer kept things very simple for his young quarterback. Virtually all of Sanchez's passes while the game was a contest were either quick throws out of a three-step drop or play-action passes that allowed him to roll out and see the field. He made a nice long throw (especially for the Meadowlands) to an open Braylon Edwards off one of those play-action fakes, but Edwards mistimed his jump and droppd the pass.
The biggest concern for the Jets' passing game is how Sanchez will handle perhaps the game's best tandem of cornerbacks in Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph; last week, the Jets stayed almost exclusively in twin wide receiver sets, with Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery lining up next to each other on one side of the field. With Joseph and Hall on separate sides, Nelson had to come down from his spot in Cover-1 and play man coverage on Cotchery coming out of the slot. That was a matchup Sanchez exploited repeatedly. On the flip side, though, a free Joseph was able to roam around and make some plays in the running game, including one run where he was able to swoop in and beat the running back to the spot at the line of scrimmage for a loss. Regardless, the Bengals have to consider moving Joseph and Hall around to match up with the Jets' wideouts, because even Crocker won't be able to man up against Cotchery.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Carson Palmer's not going to go 1-of-11 for 0 yards again.
OK, so we're going to look a little deeper than that. To struggle against the Jets' pass defense is human, but a statistical line like that is just scary. How did it happen?
Well, let's start with Palmer. He takes a fair amount of the blame for really struggling to identify the Jets' blitzes, resulting in free rushers coming at him on virtually every play. It's one thing to miss a blitzer here or there against a Rex Ryan defense, but Palmer was frequently under pressure from an unblocked rusher and someone not properly accounted for, or even two unblocked guys. In particular, Kerry Rhodes was just an absolute demon coming off the edge, knocking down Palmer's opening attempt (a swing pass to a wide open Bernard Scott that would have resulted in a big gain), and throwing in a hurry and a pass defensed before Palmer was chased from the game. The offensive line wasn't great in pass protection, and tackle Andre Smith took a penalty for being downfield on Palmer's only completion, a quick hitch to Laveranues Coles for no gain, but they can't block the guys they're not told to block.
One of the reasons Palmer might've struggled so much with properly setting his protections was because of the crowd noise. It can be overstated as an effect at times, but I've seen a lot of games from Giants Stadium in my day, and I've never heard a crowd as loud as the one that showed up on Sunday night in North Jersey. It could be anecdotal -- the Jets' sack rate on the road was actually better than it was at home before Sunday -- but it visibly gave Palmer trouble at times. Maybe they should've stopped serving beer 20 years ago.
When Palmer did get time to throw, he was victimized by poor play at receiver. Three of Palmer's 11 passes were dropped, most noticeably a 36-yard throw to a streaking Andre Caldwell that should have been a touchdown. In all fairness, we don't consider the pass that Palmer threw over the middle to Chad Ochocinco on a dig route that got Ochoinco's bell run to be a drop, but a pass defensed by Rhodes. Another three of his passes were defensed, including the interception Palmer threw to Lito Sheppard to end the half, owing in part to miscommunication. He seemed determined to go to Ochocinco despite the presence of Darrelle Revis, even ignoring a wide-open Laveraneus Coles on the team's opening third-down play to go deep to his star receiver. Cris Collinsworth also noted in commentary that Palmer has a thumb injury that's forcing him to handoff with his right hand and, more importantly, execute play-action with two hands on the ball, giving the Jets' defense a tell they don’t need.
The thumb injury might be more problematic than what's publicly known, since Palmer's struggled mightily in the second half. Palmer hurt the thumb in Week 5 against the Ravens, but his split is more pronounced after Week 9; the Bengals were sixth in the league in passing DVOA from Weeks 1-9, but fell all the way to 23rd from Weeks 10-17.
The Bengals were missing Cedric Benson, but they only ran the ball four times while the game was still a contest, so it didn't really matter very much. The Bengals were able to run the ball successfully against the Ravens over the course of their two matchups, so while the personnel is different, there's reason to believe that they'll enjoy success against the Jets if Benson is given the opportunity. One thing that might not work, though, is sixth lineman Dennis Roland. Against such a fast defense, using a sixth lineman to try and block on the edge is an idea of questionable volition. A perfect example came up against the Jets, as the Bengals used Roland as a tight end, motioning him across the formation and standing him up across from Calvin Pace. As the ball was snapped, Pace ran right by Roland through C-gap, meeting Scott before he could even get to the line of scrimmage and stopping the play for a loss. Roland would be better served as a down lineman against the Jets.
Each team's had a successful return man pace their otherwise-mundane special teams units. Brad Smith's taken over for the felled Leon Washington and been an excellent kick returner, while undrafted free agent Quan Cosby has been a revelation for the Bengals as their primary punt returner. The Bengals are fourth in the league in punt return DVOA, but also have the highest game-to-game variance on special teams in the NFL this season.
While the Bengals' 1-3 finish has led to the predictable talk of them stumbling into the playoffs, DVOA wonders if they ever were anything of note: They've consistently ranked around the middle of the DVOA pack, and finished 20th by the time the season was over. It's hard to see them, of course, and not think of Arizona, who finished 21st a year ago while suffering a similar rough spell at the end of the year.
We know the Jets won't be as good as they were a week ago; their third-down conversions were too fluky, and Cincinnati really was resting several players who will give the Jets' running game trouble. Slowing down the running game forces Sanchez to throw, which is where the Jets begin to show their issues. The Jets' defensive backfield is a great fit for what the Bengals do on offense, but having predatory cornerbacks that lure quarterbacks into ill-advised throws is exactly what a team playing the Jets would ask for. Expect a low-scoring, low-possession game that will come down to execution by the two quarterbacks.
Baltimore at New England
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The other rematch takes us all the way back to the first week of October, when the Patriots overcame the Ravens, 27-21. It was a game where both teams finished with a positive DVOA, with the Patriots at 34.5%, ahead of the Ravens at 17.8%. New England was welcoming Wes Welker back in that game from a knee injury, but this time around, Welker's on the shelf with a torn ACL. Replacing him is rookie Julian Edelman, who -- and this be can confusing -- despite being short and white, is not actually a Wes Welker clone. How will the Patriots use Edelman? What were the Ravens doing to stop Welker, and how will his absence affect their scheme this weekend? And what weakness of Joe Flacco did the Patriots attack in an unfamiliar way? A cursory analysis of their first matchup would suggest that the game was decided by turnovers, but a deeper look reveals something more predictable.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Joe Flacco embodies a lot of things you'd want in your quarterback, and not just because he learned math from Mike Tanier. His biggest problem on Sunday, though, won't require high school math: Flacco will just need to count to five.
If there's anything Flacco really struggles with, it's his ability to identify blitzes before the snap, diagnose them, and adjust his protection accordingly. It's been noted as a problem for him since he declared for the NFL Draft; Ron Jaworski was pointing out Flacco's issue with identifying a basic zone blitz on draft day. It's not that Flacco isn't tough against the blitz, since few quarterbacks are more willing to stand in the pocket and take a hit than Flacco, but that there are too many times where a free rusher gets to take a run at the Ravens' franchise quarterback.
Once upon a time, Bill Belichick feasted on a matchup like this. The tales of Patriots playoffs past are littered with exotic schemes designed to abuse even the league's best quarterbacks -- think about the one down lineman and two down lineman sets he dreamt up against Donovan McNabb in Super Bowl XXXIX) -- let alone a developing quarterback with blitz recognition issues like Flacco.
Talk of such schemes has mostly waned over the past few years, as the concerns of an aging, injury-riddled secondary and the effectiveness of his front three and a linebacker in getting pressure have forced Belichick into fewer exotic looks on defense.
That's going to change starting right now. The Patriots implemented a "five-and-dime" defense with no down linemen against the Jaguars in December, and while they obviously won't use that against the Ravens as a base defense or anything close, they did do something against the Ravens in Week 4 that they barely did the rest of the year: Blitz.
In Joe Flacco's 49 dropbacks that Sunday, the Patriots rushed five defenders or more 25 times -- that's 51 percent. We don't have the entire season charted yet for the Patriots, but in the 249 other dropbacks we do have processed, they rushed five or more defenders 36 percent of the time. They blitzed six defenders against the Ravens eight times; in those other 249 charted dropbacks, they rushed six a total of 13 times.
Predictably, Flacco struggled with the pressure. He was able to get the Patriots to jump offsides twice thanks to an effective hard count, but when they were patient, they got great lanes at Flacco. They got pressure with delayed blitzes from linebackers Gary Guyton and Tully Banta-Cain. They successfully came off the edge with Tully Banta-Cain and assorted defensive backs. Flacco was pressured into making bad throws, had to scramble away from several sacks, and was nearly stripsacked in the red zone, with a forward pass being caught by Oher for a loss.
They also got pressure up front, particularly from reserve defensive tackle Mike Wright, who had a hurry, a sack, and another sack that was called back because Wright hit Flacco in the head with his hand as he was taking the quarterback down. The Patriots ran lots of blitzes around the edges to ensure that the backs and tackles would be stretched to the outside; that created one-on-one matchups in the middle for Wright, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren. Everyone on the Ravens' offensive line had problems in pass protection short Michael Oher, who started at right tackle but moved to the left side after Jared Gaither suffered a scary neck injury. In particular, right guard Chris Chester was flailing against both defensive tackles and linebackers; Chester's been swapped out of the lineup for utility lineman Marshal Yanda, with Chester serving as a sixth offensive lineman in the role Adam Terry played last year.
The Ravens still moved the ball well, however. Ray Rice wasn't a huge factor in the game, short a 50-yard run on a perfectly-timed draw play that took advantage of the wide splits and routes to the quarterback that the Patriots were taking. (Finally, a play for first-and-20!) Derrick Mason caught six passes on the opening drive, including a touchdown pass that saw him pull off a great double-move; he ran 12 yards and faked cutting inside, freezing the safeties in the middle of the field, and then cut back outside to catch a perfectly lofted pass from Flacco for a touchdown. He only had one catch the rest of the way, but a second touchdown pass to Mason was averted only by a sprinting Brandon Meriweather, running across the field from the other safety spot after Mason had beat James Sanders, to break up an underthrown pass.
There are ways to alleviate blitzes, of course, with Rice's draw being a good example. The Ravens run a lot of play action, and while that occupies the safeties and opens up opportunities deep, it also means longer drops and more time for blitzers to get to the quarterback. The Ravens ran an interesting twist on play action a couple of times, lining Flacco up in the shotgun and Rice next to him. Before the snap, Mark Clayton went in motion deep behind them, feigning an end around; at the snap, Clayton wasn't really used, but they went play action to Rice before firing off a quick throw to, in one case, Derrick Mason on a wide receiver screen. The second time, it was a pass to Mason on what Flacco thought was a quick out, but Mason thought was a double move; the result was a red zone interception that ended a promising drive. The idea was right, though; it's a good way of getting the defense moving one way while moving the ball the other way. Of course, since they know Belichick and his team have seen that on film, expect them to actually run the end-around or a swing pass to Clayton on Sunday. New England will also have Jerod Mayo in the lineup, something that wasn't the case in October.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Wes Welker doesn't have great numbers against the Ravens: In two career games as a Patriots wide receiver against them, he has a combined nine catches for 66 yards. This might make you think that Welker's absence won't be critical, but that's absolutely not the case. The Ravens will be able to change their scheme dramatically with Welker out of the lineup.
While most teams double-team Randy Moss, only a handful of defenses give Welker double coverage. The Ravens are one of them. On most snaps in Week 4, the Ravens lined up slot cornerback Chris Carr across from Welker, regardless of which side of the field he was on. (When he ended up outside as the split end or the flanker, the cornerback on that side took care of him.) Carr was responsible for outside containment of Welker's option routes, as well as anything deep, but Tom Brady didn't really have the time or the inclination to hit Welker on a deep throw. Carr got help on the inside from a linebacker, usually Ray Lewis. This combination worked beautifully; Welker's biggest play, a 15-yard catch and run, actually came when Carr blitzed out of the slot, and he ended up one-on-one against safety Dawan Landry.
With Welker out of the lineup, the Ravens don't need to honor Julian Edelman the same way. We'll get to his role in a second, but the impact on the Ravens' defense can be huge. Carr can now blitz off the edge much more frequently, giving the Ravens another option in their blitz arsenal. Lewis is free to blitz as well, and can provide more support in the run game. The Ravens may still choose to double Edelman, but it's not a necessity for them the way it is with Welker. One way to keep Lewis occupied is to motion a running back, most likely Kevin Faulk or Sammy Morris, out of the backfield before the snap. The Patriots love to do this when they go into an empty set, and enjoyed success with it against Bart Scott when they played the Jets.
Edelman had a limited impact in the first game, but the best game to look at for the role he might play is actually against the Jets, who play the same scheme that the Ravens do. With Welker out in Week 2, Edelman was the starting wideout across from Moss, and spent a fair amount of time in the slot playing what would be considered the "Welker" spot in the offense.
The Jets had so many injury issues at cornerback during the game that it became comical. At the start of the game, when Edelman was in the slot, Dwight Lowery lined up at cornerback across from him. An injury to Lito Sheppard pushed Lowery to the edge across from Joey Galloway, while Donald Strickland took his spot in the slot. When Strickland went down with an injury, dollar back Drew Coleman filled in. As you might suspect, Edelman got better as the game went along.
Edelman didn't run anywhere near as many option routes as Welker does, although he mixed in a handful. When he wasn't the primary receiver on a route, he did these awful stutter-step routes that looked like something out of a junior-high game, hopping and skipping on the way to his cut. He looked a lot smoother as the game went along, although he's far from Welker when it comes to getting in and out of his cuts. He had some issues being in the right place; notably, Randy Moss yelled at Edelman twice and got visibly angry at him for being in the wrong spot relative to the line of scrimmage, nearly costing the team five yards for an illegal formation penalty.
The Jets essentially used their slot cornerback, whoever it was at the time, in man coverage on Edelman with no help. When Brady got time to throw, Edelman was a very viable option, especially with Darrelle Revis stalking Randy Moss. He was effective at breaking jam coverage at the line, even when it extended a few yards, and was very solid after the catch, breaking tackles and extending plays for extra yards. Interestingly, the Jets used a similar strategy with Welker, not doubling him like the Ravens did, and he had the best game of any wide receiver against the Jets all season when the return matchup came.
The problem for the Patriots will be ensuring that Brady has time to throw. The Ravens were very effective in getting pressure on Brady, even without a big blitz. Two third down plays early in their matchup provide an excellent example.
On the first third down, the Ravens split into two groups at the line; Terrell Suggs with a cornerback on the left side (right side of the defense), and two down linemen with another linebacker on the right side. As the ball was snapped, the linebackers dropped back and the Ravens rushed three, but because of the threat of the linebackers, the three were isolated against three offensive linemen as opposed to five. One of the down linemen, end Trevor Pryce, went out wide against right tackle Nick Kaczur and beat him to the edge, getting around the corner and sacking Brady to end the drive. Kaczur's struggles are well-known amongst FO readers; it's likely that rookie Sebastian Vollmer will be the starting right tackle come Sunday.
The next drive saw more of the same. On this third down play, the Ravens had two down linemen and three linebackers milling around the line looking conspicuous. They sent three again, but this time, Suggs -- one of the linebackers -- blows by two blockers at once! He's past tight end Chris Baker before Baker's even out of his stance, and left tackle Matt Light has no prayer. As the interior linemen are standing around looking for someone to block, Suggs forces Brady to step up in the pocket, where he meets Haloti Ngata, who gets a questionable roughing the passer call. Suggs would later beat Light again around the edge without a blitz, strip-sacking Brady on a play that would see the Ravens recover the ensuing fumble in the endzone for a touchdown. The Ravens may get pressure on Brady with big blitzes, but for the Patriots to be able to score points, the Ravens simply cannot be allowed to get pressure on Brady with just three men.
The Patriots have an erratic special teams group, with Stephen Gostkowski well above average on kickoffs. Welker was a very good punt returner, but he's gone; Edelman is in line to replace him, although Kevin Faulk may also see time. Baltimore's had better field goal kicking with Billy Cundiff, but outside of being strong on kickoffs and kickoff returns, they're a little below-average in the other facets of the special teams game. Kickoff returner Chris Carr fumbled the opening kickoff against New England in the previous matchup.
The absence of Welker allows the Ravens to redesign their defense to create problems for Brady, but Flacco's going to struggle with the Patriots' pass rush. Expect some exotic blitzes straight out of the olden days of yore from New England.
Flacco also doesn't really have the weaponry to trouble the Patriots if the rush doesn't get there; for a team that's so dependent on Ray Rice on third down and as a hot read, the Patriots have a defender -- Mayo -- that's capable of bottling him up. It's not impossible to construct a scenario where the Ravens defend the DVOA Crown and win, but the Patriots are the favorites here and deserve to be.
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.
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 third-power polynomial trendline. That's fancy talk for "the curve shifts direction once or twice." Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.