Raiders Need Pass Rush to Beat Burrow, Bengals
NFL Wild Card - The Cincinnati Bengals enjoyed a much less stressful path to the playoffs than their wild-card opponent, the Las Vegas Raiders. The Bengals moved into a tie for the division lead in Week 15, took sole possession of first place in Week 16, and clinched the AFC North championship in Week 17 before resting several starters in a season finale that had little impact on their playoff lives. The Raiders, on the other hand, entered Week 15 looking up at 10 teams above them in the AFC standings before winning their final four games by a total of 12 points, not clinching a playoff spot until the final play of the final game (in overtime at that) of the regular season.
One team has been a playoff favorite since mid-October while the other barely snuck in at the final gun, so we should expect a comfortable Cincinnati win, right? Not necessarily—DVOA sees this as a much closer game than the oddsmakers in Las Vegas (the city, not the football team). The Bengals are—forgive us—paper tigers to a degree, with most of their wins coming against lackluster competition. Only six of their 17 games came against teams that made the playoffs. They went 4-2 in those games, but that includes a 3-0 record against the Steelers and Raiders, two teams that finished outside the top 20 in DVOA. You could argue that Cincinnati only beat one good team all year (Kansas City in Week 17), and that they are fortunate to be facing the Raiders instead of the Chargers, who clobbered them 41-22 in Week 13 and would have made the playoffs with a win (or tie) last Sunday.
The Chargers, of course, did not win on Sunday. The Raiders did. And now that they're here, they have a reasonable chance to win again.
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. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
|DVOA||-5.2% (21)||0.0% (17)|
|WEI DVOA||-2.4% (20)||1.8% (14)|
|Raiders on Offense|
|LV OFF||CIN DEF|
|DVOA||-3.4% (19)||2.9% (19)|
|WEI DVOA||-4.3% (20)||4.6% (24)|
|PASS||12.3% (17)||11.6% (24)|
|RUSH||-15.7% (25)||-9.8% (13)|
|Bengals on Offense|
|LV DEF||CIN OFF|
|DVOA||0.8% (17)||1.2% (18)|
|WEI DVOA||-1.8% (16)||4.4% (12)|
|PASS||10.3% (21)||16.4% (15)|
|RUSH||-12.8% (10)||-10.8% (20)|
|DVOA||-1.0% (21)||1.7% (8)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
The Raiders' strength is in their versatility. While they're not particularly dominant at any one thing, they have achieved a baseline of competence in most everything. That shows in our individual numbers, both DYAR and DVOA. Derek Carr finished 11th in passing efficiency. Josh Jacobs ranked in the mid-30s among running backs in both rushing and receiving value. Darren Waller missed six games due to injury and wasn't very effective when he did play, but that's OK because Foster Moreau finished in the mid-20s among tight ends in both departments. The offensive line was OK. Their best player was wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, who finished 10th in DYAR and 17th in DVOA at his position.
Las Vegas leaned heavily on Jacobs (who finished ninth in touches) and threw a lot of short passes to Renfrow and their tight ends, but still found nearly 200 targets for deep threats Henry Ruggs (before his DUI arrest and release, obviously), DeSean Jackson (signed shortly after Ruggs' release), Zay Jones, and Bryan Edwards. It all added up to a unit that was rarely horrible, but often boring and bland. The Raiders like to call themselves the Silver and Black, but Grey and Beige may have been a more appropriate color scheme for this offense.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to the playoffs: this became Zay Jones' team. The fifth-year pro had only seven catches in seven games at the time of Ruggs' tragic collision, then caught exactly one pass in each of Las Vegas' next three outings as he grew into his new starting role. He started to figure things out on Thanksgiving, catching five balls against Dallas, and finished with 33 receptions in six games after that. In fact, he was clearly the focus of the passing game during Las Vegas' four-game winning streak with 36 targets, 14 more than any of his teammates and 11th among NFL wideouts in that timeframe. He turned those targets into 25 catches for 264 yards, plus a 46-yard DPI. Renfrow, meanwhile, caught 17 of 22 targets for 161 yards, though he added three touchdowns while Jones failed to score.
So who will be more productive this Saturday, Jones or Renfrow? The answer to that question may be "whoever is being covered by Eli Apple," because Chidobe Awuzie had an outstanding season in coverage. He ranked 10th out of 81 qualifying corners in yards allowed per target and fifth in coverage success rate, one of four corners to make the top 10 in both categories. Cincinnati's next two corners—Apple and nickelback Mike Hilton—were more vulnerable to big plays, both ranking in the 50s in yards allowed per target. Carr could also look to isolate Jacobs against linebacker Logan Wilson, whose success rate in coverage was a miniscule 23.5%. That's appallingly bad—every other linebacker (or safety, for that matter) with at least 30 targets was successful in coverage at least one-third of the time.
None of that may be relevant, however, because the Bengals don't play a lot of man-to-man coverage; only six defenses used zone coverage more often. And that's bad news for Carr, who was much more effective against man coverage (8.0 yards per throw, 11 touchdowns, five interceptions) than against zone (6.7 yards per throw, five touchdowns, seven interceptions). The Raiders could help Carr out by using play-action. The Cincinnati defense allowed 6.2 yards per play against straight dropbacks, a top-10 rate, but were 30th against play-action, surrendering 8.7 yards per play. Only the Ravens suffered a bigger drop-off in performance when opponents faked a handoff. The Raiders used play-action on just 18.9% of passing plays—only Tampa Bay used it less often—but if they are going to survive and advance, they may first need to shift gears and adapt. They should also let Carr pass on first down, where the Bengals rank dead last in DVOA. The Raiders, for their part, ranked 19th in first-down passing on offense.
When the Raiders do hand off, it's usually to Jacobs (who had 84 of the team's 121 carries during their winning streak) and most often between the tackles (63% of the time, a top-10 rate). The Bengals defense was ninth in adjusted line yards against up-the-middle runs, but they should still have their hands full on Saturday. Jacobs ranked third in the NFL with 56 broken tackles, while Cincinnati's defense allowed more broken tackles than anyone except Detroit. Germaine Pratt and Wilson were both among the top 20 linebackers in broken tackles; Hilton, Vonn Bell, Jessie Bates were among the top 25 defensive backs. Jacobs is not the only Raiders star who excels in making defenders miss, by the way—Renfrow was fourth in broken tackles among wide receivers.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
The Bengals' passing attack is much simpler to define than the Raiders'. Top receivers Ja'Marr Chase (sixth in both DVOA and DYAR) and Tee Higgins (fifth) handle the deep routes while slot man Tyler Boyd runs the shallow crossers. Tight end C.J. Uzomah is there to punish defenses for devoting too much attention to the wideouts—he was top-12 at the position in both DVOA and DYAR despite ranking outside the top 20 in targets. Cincinnati also calls a lot of running back screens, with Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine combining for 69 catches and 510 yards, 516 of which came after the catch. It was all very dangerous, as Joe Burrow completed 70.4% of his passes for an 8.9-yard average, both the best rates in the league. As a team, the Bengals ranked ninth or better in total passing yardage, air yards, yards after the catch, and touchdowns, and only the 49ers and Rams averaged more yards per passing play. In DVOA, meanwhile, the Bengals passing offense ranked … 15th, a little bit better than the Ravens and Browns, a little bit worse than the Vikings and Broncos.
We have talked a couple of times lately about why our numbers for Burrow and the passing attack are so underwhelming, but the short answer is schedule and mistakes. Burrow only played three games against defenses that finished in the top 10 in pass defense DVOA (Pittsburgh twice, Cleveland once), but he played six in the bottom 10 (Detroit, Jacksonville, Kansas City, the Jets, and Baltimore twice). Burrow also took a league-high 50 sacks and was in the top 10 in interceptions despite sitting out Week 18.
The Raiders finished 21st in defense against the pass, narrowly missing giving Burrow a seventh game against a bottom-10 team. Are they capable of exploiting Cincinnati's self-destructive tendencies? Yes and no. They were not especially high in adjusted sack rate, but they were 11th in pressure rate. Top edge rusher Maxx Crosby had just 8.0 sacks, falling outside the top 30, but he led the NFL with 51 pressures (hurries plus sacks). As for interceptions, they probably won't be a problem for the Bengals—Las Vegas intercepted a league-low six passes this season, one each by six different defenders, three of them in one game against the Broncos in Week 6.
Las Vegas didn't have a lot of interesting pass coverage splits by either receiver or direction—they basically ranked in the mid-teens or 20s in everything—but some of their individual defenders had eye-popping results. Casey Hayward, who started all 17 games, faced an average target 17.4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, deepest out of 81 qualifying cornerbacks by nearly 2 full yards . As you might expect, he ranked a lot higher in coverage success rate (56.3%, 31st) than yards allowed per target (8.3, 62nd). Meanwhile, nickelback Nate Hobbs was at the other extreme: 79th in average depth of target, next-to-last in success rate, middle of the pack in yards allowed per target. Brandon Facyson, the starter opposite Hayward in the second half of the year, had numbers closer to Hobbs; expect the two of them to give up shorter stuff while the Bengals try to isolate Chase and Higgins against Hayward on shot plays. We should also point out Raiders linebacker Denzel Perryman led all players at his position with 59 targets in coverage despite missing two games. His per-target stats were nothing special, but teams certainly threw his way a lot. This may be because the Raiders played even more zone coverage than the Bengals—49% of the time, the highest rate in the league.
We have barely mentioned Joe Mixon so far, and that's something of an oversight on our part—he actually led the team with 1,519 yards from scrimmage and 16 total touchdowns. His efficiency stats aren't great, but only Najee Harris and Jonathan Taylor had more total touches this year. The Bengals love to run him off tackle, where they made the top four in frequency, and he was tough to bring down, ranking 14th at his position in broken tackles. This was a team-wide strength for Cincinnati, which had the fourth-best broken tackle rate on offense. Chase, Higgins, and Boyd were all in the top 30 among wideouts. Even Uzomah got into the act, ranking third among tight ends. The Raiders defense was about average in broken tackles; safety Johnathan Abram led the team with 15.
If there is one thing you should take away from our line stats, it should be this: the Bengals should not, under any circumstances, expect to win this game with short-yardage runs. They only converted 51% of their "power" opportunities on offense. The only worse team was the Falcons, and they were playing a wide receiver at running back for most of the year. The Raiders, meanwhile, were the NFL's best defense in short-yardage situations, allowing a successful play only 55% of the time. A lot of credit for that goes to Crosby and Perryman, as well as defensive tackles Quinton Jefferson and Johnathan Hankins. Between pass rush and short-yardage dominance, the Las Vegas defensive front could be the key to a wild-card win.
The Bengals were the only team to rank in the top four in both placekicking and kickoffs, and Evan McPherson handles both of those duties. He was perfect on field goals under 40 yards this year and only missed two extra points, though he only went 15-of-20 on longer kicks. Kevin Huber and the punt coverage team were solid, but the Bengals were bottom-eight returning both punts and kickoffs. Picking someone to handle those jobs didn't seem to be high on their priority list—they used four different punt returners and seven (!) different kickoff returners.
Kickoffs were a bugaboo for the Raiders, whether they were kicking or receiving—they were in the bottom five in both categories, averaging less than 20 yards per return themselves while giving up a 100-yard touchdown to Dallas' Tony Pollard. Lead wideout Hunter Renfrow handled punt return duties and left them in the middle of the pack there. Punter AJ Cole led the NFL with a 50.0-yard gross punting average, but his coverage teams gave up 12.2 yards per return, second-worst behind Green Bay. Daniel Carslon connected on 40 of 43 field goal attempts, including an 18-of-20 performance from 40 yards or more.
Given their explosive nature, there is a chance the Bengals jump out to a big early lead, and if that happens this one could be over quickly—the Bengals ranked fourth on offense while playing with a two-score lead, while the Raiders were 28th on defense when losing big. It's more likely, though, that the weather forecast (freezing temperatures with a chance of snow) turns this into a defensive rock-fight that isn't decided until the fourth quarter. The Raiders certainly have had more success in those scenarios this year: they went 7-2 in games decided by eight points or less, and became just the third team ever (joining Tim Tebow's Broncos and the John Skelton/Kevin Kolb Cardinals in 2011) to go 4-0 in overtime. The Bengals went 4-5 in one-score games (including last week against Cleveland) with a 1-2 record in overtime.
That same weather, however, could help Cincinnati. Paul Dehner Jr. of The Athletic points out that Derek Carr has lost all five of his games at 37 degrees or colder, and his teams have never scored more than 17 points.
The Bengals are going into this game as six-point favorites. We think that's too big, but we still expect Cincinnati to win. Let the Raiders cover, and let the bettors and bookies have their fun. The Bengals will be happy to get their first playoff win since 1990.
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 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.