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» Four Downs: AFC East

Biggest post-draft holes all reside on offense in the AFC East, except for the Pats who could still use a real edge rusher.

18 Sep 2012

Any Given Sunday: Cardinals over Patriots

by Rivers McCown

Arizona's 20-18 win over the Patriots is a pretty unprecedented result in the scope of Football Outsiders history. As we noted in Audibles, this was the rare case where the Premium DVOA picks database actually agreed with a huge line. Coming into the game, the Patriots were 13.5-point favorites. Not only did our premium DVOA picks think that line was fair, it was also the only game of the week that we gave our most confident (green) rating to. You can count the number of times a 13.5-point favorite has lost, since 2010, on one hand. You can count the number of times we've picked a 13.5-point favorite as a "green" risk against the spread, only to see them lose, on one finger.

I would be lying to you if I said, while watching this game, that what didn't come to mind first were some very bizarre coaching decisions by New England. Aaron Hernandez's high-ankle sprain obviously, to use a well-known sports cliche, sucked a lot of the air out of the offense. But beyond that, there were the bizarre head games between Josh McDaniels, Bill Belichick, and Wes Welker prior to the injury that left him sitting for Julian Edelman. There was New England's perfectly even run-pass ratio despite the fact that, even when sitting in their 2-4-5 nickel scheme, Arizona was usually able to keep that unit quiet. And finally, there was Belichick's odd decision to pull up and take the long field goal on the final drive that Ryan Williams gifted to them, rather than trying to inch closer.

Despite all those issues, and despite the honest-to-goodness actual reasons that Arizona was able to get it close (getting good pass rush on Tom Brady, the blocked punt), VOA is once again not willing to give its seal of approval to this victory. That's really not all that surprising considering, as we mentioned last week, that VOA (and DVOA) are really built for seasonal analysis rather than a single-game performance early in the year. Plus, you know, the fact that New England out-gained Arizona by 142 yards. (To put that in perspective, the Jaguars moved 117 yards total in their Week 2 loss to the Texans.)

Dewey Defeats Cardinals
Team Total VOA Off. VOA Def. VOA Special Teams VOA
ARI -5.6% -19.1% -5.4% 8.1%
NE 11.6% -0.1% -24.4% -12.7%

So, the Cardinals stand 2-0, which ties them with the 49ers for first place in the suddenly-frisky NFC West, where every team has at least one win. I've seen a few people wonder aloud if this is the least talented of the six 2-0 teams. I can see where conventional thinking would lead you there. After all, this offense has one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL and no franchise quarterback.

But I think, if you look at it another way, that the obvious comparison for these Cardinals are the 2009 New York Jets: a team with a burgeoning star cornerback and several good defensive pieces trying to carry a bad offense to victory.

Obviously, the similarities start with Patrick Peterson and Darrelle Revis, right now the only two corners in the NFL that are never really assigned safety help. Peterson began to blossom towards the end of last season, and his ability to check one receiver all by himself, normally in trail technique, leaves the rest of the defensive backfield a man up in their quest to shut down the offense. Plus, hey, both teams have (had) Kerry Rhodes!

Up front, those Jets mauled with Kris Jenkins (when healthy) and Shaun Ellis, while the Cardinals have the ultra-versatile Darnell Dockett and 6-foot-8 monster Calais Campbell. Neither team really had (has) what you'd call a dominant pass rusher outside. Who led the 2009 Jets in sacks? Calvin Pace, who only had 8.5. Last year the Cardinals got seven sacks from 2011 fourth-round pick Sam Acho, and he's right around that pace again this year after notching one against Brady and company yesterday. Daryl Washington has proved to be a wise investment in the middle, though the Cardinals can't match the pair the Jets had in David Harris and Bart Scott.

Peterson also plays a big role in another overlooked area: special teams. The Cardinals have ranked 11th, 9th, and 10th in the NFL over the past three years in special teams DVOA, but that has mostly been due to one-year shifts in field-goal accuracy and coverage teams. Peterson returned four punts for touchdowns last season, and while he hasn't broken one yet this season, he's definitely someone teams have to account for. (Between the Cover-0 corner work and his work on special teams and in the Wildcat, it could be argued that Peterson is the most valuable non-quarterback in the league.) And of course, while we like to say that blocked kicks and punts are non-predictive events, that doesn't mean that it's not huge when you can get them. Arizona has blocked eleven field goals in the last three seasons. And with a pair of, for lack of a better term, freaks like Campbell and Peterson, they're probably going to keep generating blocks at a higher-than-normal rate. The 2009 Jets? They finished sixth in special teams DVOA.

Now, of course, the main difference between those two teams was the perception of their quarterback. Mark Sanchez was perceived differently because he was a high first-round pick and a rookie, while Kevin Kolb's washout in 2011 was regarded as more of an umitigated disaster because he was already 27 and had been in the league for four years. Frankly, does it really matter how you have a below-average quarterback? The Jets and Cardinals both invested heavily on a pair of quarterbacks that had red flags. Sanchez had an extremely low Lewin Career Forecast, and there was plenty of tape on Kolb in Philadelphia that suggested he'd have problems dealing with pressure. They did this because the potential of acquiring a franchise quarterback outweighs the risk. They failed, but they weren't necessarily wrong for trying. (Now the degree of trade assets they gave up, that might be questionable, but that's a different discussion.)

Look, at some point in an NFL game, it's third-and-8 and your quarterback is going to have to make a play. If you don't have a good quarterback, it's tough to have a good team. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it's impossible to run an NFL offense without one, nor does it mean that a team can't be successful if they do everything else right. If the Cardinals defense puts in a full season of what they've been showing since the middle of 2011, they won't need Kolb to be a great quarterback to win games; they'll need him to not be totally abhorrent. Remember: the Cardinals went 8-8 last year with the 29th-ranked DVOA pass offense.

Based on the tape of this game, the throws are there to be made. Larry Fitzgerald is going to require safety help. Kolb missed a couple of gimme throws on Sunday, including an easy touchdown to Todd Heap, but looked much better under pressure than he normally has. Yeah, the offensive line is in shambles. D'Anthony Batiste's two pass-blocking techniques against Chandler Jones were "hope" and "pray," and they weren't able to get much going in the run game either. But, again, is it really that much worse off than it was last year?

The Cardinals have played a pair of defenses so far, in New England and Seattle, that will rank third and fourth respectively in defensive VOA this week. Yes, that's weighted a bit by, you know, actually playing the Cardinals, but we also projected them in the preseason to be the 11th- and fifth-best defenses this year. Nobody is saying that the Cardinals' offense is suddenly going to break out when they're not facing good defenses, but it is plausible that they could be mediocre. It's also plausible that they could improve some areas of their offense: first-round pick Michael Floyd could prove ready for a mid-season promotion, they could find some scrap heap guys that come in and perform better than the current offensive line, or John Skelton could reclaim the starting job and play better than he did last season.

The 2009 Jets made it to the postseason with the 22nd-ranked offense. That team had a much better running game and offensive line than Arizona does, but it also didn't have any player as good as Fitzgerald. Given the way San Francisco has crapped all over the Plexiglass Principle so far, it's not likely that Arizona is going to make the postseason. But, could they reclaim eight wins? Could they win a few more lucky games like this one and get up to 10? It's not crazy.

Sometimes, in our quick rush to lump teams into "teams with bad quarterbacks" and "teams with good quarterbacks," we forget that there are some defenses that do manage to overcome a bad one. Arizona's stellar young defense may be blossoming into one of those in front of our very eyes.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 18 Sep 2012

41 comments, Last at 26 Apr 2013, 4:35pm by chat random


by Whatev :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 1:31pm

I'm not sure what you mean by safety help for Larry Fitzgerald.

by Joseph :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 1:45pm

Pretty sure he means that Fitz HAS TO BE double-covered by a CB & S on practically every snap.

by zenbitz :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 1:46pm

I understand that it's not unreasonable for the Cardinals to be a pretty decent team. Their defense really picked it up at then end of last year, too.

But which other 2-0 team is worse? SF, Texas, Philly, Atlanta? San Diego, maybe?

by commissionerleaf :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 2:12pm

Based on Monday Night, Atlanta. But for three interceptions they were spotted, they lose that game. They had no offense outside of Matt Ryan dinking and dunking underneath to Tony Gonzalez for most of the game, no running game at all, and the defense allowed 21 points in a little over two quarters once Peyton Manning was reminded which jerseys his new team was wearing.

One decent run around right end from Turner (his only one of the night) was the difference in the game. If not for that, Manning has about a minute and a half down 6.

Philadelphia would be a great team if they'd stop trying to lose games. Every time you look their incredibly talented players are doing boneheaded things, but they have won twice anyway. Imagine how good they'll be when Vick stops playing Ben Roethlisberger and starts scrambling instead of standing in and throwing picks under pressure, Asomugha starts playing like Asomugha, and they give McCoy more than fifteen carries.

by Briguy :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 4:12pm

This is what I took away from last night's game that I haven't heard a lot of talk about. I think most people wouldn't argue that a 4-turnover quarter is a fluke. Outside of that, the Broncos clearly outplayed Atlanta. They were spotted 20 points off turnovers, and won by 6. That a team can turn the ball over 4 times in the first quarter and still have a chance to win the game at the end makes me think this is a really, really good Broncos team.

by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 4:17pm

I agree with this argument, but then I also think that by similar logic the Steelers really outplayed the Packers in Super Bowl XLV. They lost the turnover battle 3-0, and missed a field goal but still had the ball with a chance to win with two minutes left.

by dryheat :: Wed, 09/19/2012 - 7:52am

I guess that every team should try to get 4 turnovers in the fourth quarter then.

Nobody gave Atlanta four turnovers. They took them. During at least two of those three interceptions, they baited Manning into a bad decision and took the ball.

The scoreboard did say 0-0 at the opening kick. Nobody "spotted" Atlanta anything.

by DragonPie (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2012 - 11:23pm

As a Broncos fan, I'll tell you that this game was encouraging to me. To me, the defense seemed to play pretty well against what I expect to be a very good team. And last week, the same seemed to be true against Pittsburgh.

Now, Peyton Manning threw three interceptions which kind of sucked, but I don't expect that to keep up. Coming into the season, I expected the defense to be a much bigger problem than the offense and so far against good offenses, the defense has put up pretty good numbers.

I don't know if it'll keep up, but I've seen enough from Peyton in both games to feel like the three picks were an aberration, and that he will still be Peyton Manning.

by young curmudgeon :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 5:22pm

"when Vick stops playing Ben Roethlisberger and starts scrambling instead of standing in and throwing picks under pressure"

Unsure of what you're saying here...Is your notion that Roethlisberger doesn't scramble enough? That he stands in the pocket and throws picks under pressure? Neither interpretation rings true, but I can't cut through your syntax and come up with another one.

by Eddo :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 7:34pm

I think the point was that Vick is standing around in the pocket like Roethlisberger, instead of scrambling, but does not have the same successful results that way. Basically, Vick can't play Roethlisberger's style.

by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 1:54pm

"D'Anthony Batiste's two pass-blocking techniques against Chandler Jones were "hope" and "pray," - That is very nicely written.

I'd expand some of the points you make to the NFC West in general. It's been very easy to look at the quarterbacks and write off their chances. However, you can make the case that this is the best defensive division in the NFL. You have made a good case for the Cards, the Seahawks defense shouldn't be surprising anyone this year, the 49ers defense is regarded as one of the best in the game and the Rams unit should be improved with the arrival of two decent corners in Finnegan and Jenkins to go with the improving Robert Quinn and the already rather good Chris Long and James Laurinitis.

Plenty of folks, some from round here, have seen the NFC West and mentally handed out three or four wins but they shouldn't be regarded as push overs, even if they are unlikely to continue their current form outside the division.

by Anon (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 2:02pm

That picture on the front page looks suspiciously like it's from the Seahawks vs. Cardinals game last week...

by Raiderjoe :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 2:38pm

Not just look like it. It is.

Crads defense very food. Acho nice spped rusjer. D. Washington flowering young LB. Dockett and Campbell very nice. Wilson, Peterson good. Lenon old guy but still okay.

by RickD :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 2:37pm

Not much discussion of the actual game here. It's like you're assuming everybody saw it so we all know what the basics are.

by CraigoMc (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 2:49pm

Not to mention that two teams actually played in this game, despite what the article would have you believe.

by Keith(1) (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 4:50pm

To be fair, if the expectation as laid out in the first paragraph is the general expectation (that the Patriots would win by nearly two touchdowns), and the Cardinals won, I think the more compelling article and breakdown is actually the Cardinals team and what they did right. On the other hand, this seemed to turn into a "Football Outsiders Cardinals Preview" than a review of the game.

Either way, I learned a little bit about what the Cardinals have going on, and came away with some interesting talking points. You look at the Patriots and say "They still have Tom Brady." That is the relevant information in that discussion. You look at the Cardinals and say "They still have Larry Fitzgerald." There is other information needed to be known before you can make a decision on whether or not that is a good thing.

If I were a Patriots fan, and I visited Football Outsiders, I could see how this particular article does not really tell much about what went wrong. If I were a Cardinals fan, and I visited Football Outsiders, I would be the only one, and I could see how this article makes me feel good about being a Cardinals fan. As a neutral fan, it served the purpose of explaining the "Wtf?" after seeing the scorecard.

by young curmudgeon :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 5:24pm

"If I were a Patriots fan, and I visited Football Outsiders, I could see how this particular article does not really tell much about what went wrong."

Is this the first time in the history of FO that someone has claimed that the Patriots did not receive sufficient attention from the site?

by RickD :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 8:05pm

Just seems weird in an article about how the Cardinals upset the Pats, more than half of the article is spent on comparing the Cardinals to the Jets of a few years ago, and at most two paragraphs provide a sketch of what actually happened in this game.

Didn't get to watch much of this game at all. Was hoping for a bit more info here.

But at least I know Rivers thinks Patrick Peterson is the next Darelle Revis.

by Noah Arkadia :: Wed, 09/19/2012 - 9:59am

There's a Cardinal bias in this site.

FO posters are a peacock. You got to let us fly!

by BigAl (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 3:04pm

Love this article.

The Cardinals, as they did in there 2008 superbowl run, are bringing into question the very existence of your vaunted DVOA. Then it was Aaron Schatz screaming foul, the Cardinals aren't following the statistical protocol, and reality should be suspended until the DVOA matrix in back in order.

Football fans; not statisticians, who watched the game eyes tell them that the pillow smothering defense the Cards laid on the collective foreheads on the Patriots was real and sustainable.

by Guido Merkens :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 3:29pm

Are you sure you meant to post here on Football Outsiders and not, say, Bleacher Report or Yahoo Answers?

by jebmak :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 4:12pm


by Vicious Chicken of Bristol (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 4:27pm

Not sure why you should catch hell for this post. I think the truth is that the Patriots are, as usual, vastly overrated. DVOA is no better than a coin flip.

by CraigoMc (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 4:32pm

I think your fight is with the 16 game schedule and single-elimination playoffs, not DVOA (or any other statistical measure). Sample size matters, and FO has to do more with less data.

Also, it's the Eagles that DVOA consistently overrates.

by RickD :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 8:07pm

Some people prefer systems that only consider the information that was presented two days prior.

by PatsFan :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 4:40pm

Is there an award for earliest triggering of the FOMBC?

by Stats are for losers (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 7:15pm

Those are all excellent points, but pillow-smothering works slightly better when applied to the mouth and nose, which can cause suffocation, rather than the forehead, which just makes the would-be victim (and assailant) look silly.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 09/19/2012 - 1:19pm

It works if you have a Screaming Forehead.

by bravehoptoad :: Wed, 09/19/2012 - 11:56am

Someone is questioning DVOA's existence? I thought one thing we could all agree on is that it exists.

by BigCheese :: Wed, 09/19/2012 - 10:06pm

Awww... little Al learned to log onto the internets and (kind of) write on it. And he's sharing his wittle thoughts on an anonymous post. How cute! Now, when he learns to write things that make sense and actually has something to say, we'll all be here waiting!

- Alvaro

Phil Simms is to analysts what Ryan Leaf is to NFL QBs

by nat :: Tue, 09/18/2012 - 4:54pm

Rivers, I would love to see the VOA broken down by quarter for this game.

How much of the difference was the fourth quarter? And how much of that was changes in the baseline (average) rather than success (value) in VOA? How did the play by play baselines for the two teams compare in the fourth quarter?

Don't get me wrong. This was a close game that came down to a failed conversion, a brainfart fumble, a (ticky-tack?) holding call and a shanked field goal. It wouldn't be surprising to see VOA go either way on this one.

by Paddy Pat :: Wed, 09/19/2012 - 2:05am

You miss the blocked punt as part of the analysis. If not for the touchdown obtained by the blocked punt, the Cardinals actually lose this game fair and square--the big, hard-fought Pats drive for a touchdown would have been for the lead. It seemed to me that the Pats' offense was fairly awful early, settled down for little stretches and then jelled late, but the Pats' defense was fairly dominant throughout. I would imagine that VOA favors the Patriots a little early and a lot late with a big hiccup around the time of the blocked punt.

by Mr Shush :: Wed, 09/19/2012 - 8:29am

I think the difference in offensive line quality is pretty hugely important. Ferguson, Mangold and company gave Sanchez good protection and an adequate run game, and that meant both more ability to move the chains and far fewer turnovers than I expect from the Cardinals this season. Neither the Pats nor the Seahawks have much of a pass rush. The next 7 weeks look an awful lot tougher for them in that regard. My guess: they go into their bye at 4-5 and finish 6-10.

by Trevor (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2012 - 1:11pm

The Cards D Coordinator was on radio yesterday saying that "They run when Brady is under center, pass when he's in shotgun?" They were told early to make the run or pass play based on Brady being in the shotgun or not. Does anyone know the actual split, it did seem like that while watching this game.

by dryheat :: Wed, 09/19/2012 - 3:00pm

Courtesy Mike Reiss, ESPN Boston:

Usage of the shotgun
vs. Cardinals: 39 of 82 (11 runs, 28 passes)
vs. Titans: 13 of 67 (0 runs, 13 passes)

And frankly, I don't buy what Horton's selling. A high school coach, if not a Pop Warner coach, would know better than to have such an obvious tell. They pass out of shotgun and run when Brady's under center. Are you kidding me? It would be like watching Johnny Chan cackling maniacally everytime he had pocket aces and loudly swearing everytime he was dealt unconnected, unsuited, small cards.

Maybe he correctly guessed that the Patriots usually passed out of a four-wide shotgun when down by two scores in the 4th quarter. Atta Boy, Coach!

Edit: Here's the under-center stats, also from Reiss: Meanwhile, Brady was under center 43 times in the game (including penalties), and the Patriots ran it just 17 times on those plays. So they actually passed the ball more when Brady was under center than ran it.

This reminds me of Childress, who always tried to build up his resume by boasting of all the times he got the better of Belichick. I don't know why Horton feels the need to beat his chest, his reputation is solid.

by Nathan :: Wed, 09/19/2012 - 2:26pm


Horton has shared with the Doug & Wolf Show on Arizona Sports 620 that the Pats and Belichick had a tell in Week Two. Before tight end Aaron Hernandez was injured, the Patriots ran the ball whenever Hernandez lined up tight to the offensive line. After Hernandez was injured, it became more simple — the Pats ran the ball whenever quarterback Tom Brady lined up under center, and they passed the ball whenever Brady lined up in shotgun formation.

Any truth to this? I remember at least one long developing play-action (with a fake end around built in, I think it was the same one they ran Week 1 when they missed the deep ball to Lloyd).

by Nathan :: Wed, 09/19/2012 - 2:27pm

And I see it is being discussed directly above me. Whoops.

by MJK :: Wed, 09/19/2012 - 9:04pm

To summarize for the folks that didn't watch the game: there were many fluky things (some due to luck, and some due to good or bad play/decisions, but fluky nonetheless), and most of them affected the Patriots more adversley than the Cards.

Pro-Cards flukes:
* A tipped Brady pass being intercepted in an amazingly athletic play
* Belichick playing Edelmen over Welker in some kind of weird power-play thing
* Start player (Aaron Hernandez) for Patriots injured on third offensive play
* Blocked Patriots punt recovered by Cardinals on the Pats' 2 yard line
* Belichick (or McDaniels) refusing to pass the ball or target Gronkowski even when running wasn't working
* Belickick going all Norv Turner and hanging the game on a long FG attempt rather than trying to get closer
* A missed 41 yard FG that would have won the game

Pro-Pats flukes:
* Cards fumble in middle of game
* Cards fumble while trying to run out the clock

Even though the Pats recovered both of the Cards' fumbles, they ended up being harmless to the Cards. The first happened at midfield (the best place to fumble if you're going to fumble) and the Cards' defense held. The end fumble was negated by the missed FG.

The VOA for this game makes sense. Both defenses played amazingly in this game, the Pats' defense played a little better. Considering the Cardinals started one drive in FG range after a tip ball interception, and got a FG, and started another drive after a blocked punt on the 2, and got a TD, the Pats defense can only be blamed for at most 14 points, and if you don't hold not making a goal line stand against them after the blocked punt, only 10. Whereas the Cards defense gave up 18 points, but mostly FG's. So when VOA says the Cards defense played well, and the Pats defense played really well, I believe it.

I'm a little surprised VOA likes the Pats offense so much, given that they really only had one good drive, and a few decent half drives that ended in long FG's. But that's the only thing that smells funny. There were a lot of bad breaks, and a lot of tactical mistakes by the Patriots, those two combined to turn what could have been a tough win against a team with a good defense and a bad offense into a very close loss.

by Trey (not verified) :: Thu, 09/20/2012 - 11:38am

Love this site, but why is Aaron Schatz such a bitter emo? I agree with several others posters that most of this isn't really a review of the game, and then Mr. Schatz jumps on twitter to of course blame the readers ("I guess making it free isn't good enough for people") He was also passive-aggressive about the bottom-barrel Bleacher Report (!) not mentioning him or any other FO ppl on a "Follow these people on twitter" list not too long ago. Grow up bro, this site in my opinion is too good to acting like that. Getting pissy to your readers is bush league

by Andrew Potter :: Thu, 09/20/2012 - 1:47pm

You do realise that this article wasn't written by Aaron, right?

by chat random (not verified) :: Fri, 04/26/2013 - 4:35pm

You can count the number of times we've picked a 13.5-point favorite as a "green" risk against the spread, only to see them lose, on one finger.