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04 Nov 2005

Game Previews: CAR-TB, PHI-WAS, KC-OAK

By Aaron Schatz

Unlike last year, 2005 will not see any 8-8 teams make the NFC playoffs. Seven of the eight teams in the NFC South and NFC East have winning records, and only four will make the postseason. Two intra-division matchups this weekend provide contenders with a chance to better their own position and knock down a competitor in one fell swoop.


(Sunday, 1pm)

Carolina was a popular Super Bowl pick in the preseason, but the team was written off by many observers after a 1-2 start. Ignored by everyone, the Panthers reeled off four straight wins. Now they sit in a five-way tie atop the NFC along with New York, Seattle, and division rivals Atlanta and Tampa Bay.

The Bucs had that place to themselves until they were upset by the league's worst team, San Francisco. Upsets happen in the NFL all the time, but the Bucs cannot write this one off as a fluke, because it was clearly tied to two players: quarterback Chris Simms, who took over the starting job when Brian Griese tore his ACL in the previous game, and running back Cadillac Williams, who has been rendered ineffective by a foot injury.

The defense did its part against San Francisco, despite the suspension of defensive end Simeon Rice for missing a team meeting. The Bucs held San Francisco to 50 yards passing, and while they allowed 186 yards on the ground, those came at a reasonable clip of 4.1 yards per carry.

But the 49ers -- a team that had previously allowed an average of 35 points per game -- intercepted Simms twice, sacked him four times, and forced a fumble as Tampa was trying to come back in the final two minutes. Williams, who began his career with three straight games over 125 yards, gained a measly 20 yards on 13 carries. Tampa's only touchdown came on a 78-yard pass to Galloway that was actually a three-yard pass with 75 yards after the catch.

If this was the output against San Francisco, how will Tampa fare against the above-average defense of Carolina, which hasn't given up 30 points yet this season? Adjusted line yards, a metric for measuring offensive and defensive line blocking, ranks Carolina's front seven as the NFL's best run-stoppers.

Of course, Tampa's front seven ranks just behind in second place, and Carolina running back Stephen Davis is averaging a dismal three yards per carry. But the Panthers have a colossal advantage in the passing game, where Steve Smith has been the best receiver in the league. Carolina's other receivers are subpar, and defenses can focus on Smith, and it doesn't matter. Smith leads NFL wide receivers with both 797 yards and eight touchdowns while catching 71 percent of the passes thrown to him, the second highest total among receivers with at least 40 passes.

Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ratings (DVOA) – which break down each play of the season and compare it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent – also measure a team's defense against specific receivers. Tampa Bay's pass defense ranks 11th overall, but just 15th against no. 1 receivers and 26th against no. 3 or 4 receivers. They'll have problems covering Smith, and if all the safeties are concentrated on helping the cornerbacks stop Smith deep, it frees things up for a big game from venerable slot receiver Ricky Proehl.

Carolina will be able to score. Without a steep improvement in the performance of Chris Simms and the health of Cadillac Williams, Tampa Bay will not.

EAGLES (4-3) at REDSKINS (4-3)

(Sunday, 8:30pm)

The Eagles, expected to run away with the NFC East, find themselves in a struggle just to make the playoffs. The Redskins, expected to sit in last place, are happy to be involved in that struggle as well. Both teams are trying to recover their dignity after the Broncos thrashed the Eagles 49-21 and the Giants stomped the Redskins 36-0.

But Philadelphia is not built to take advantage of the Washington holes exposed by the Giants. The Redskins had trouble when they blitzed on the right side and the Giants handed the ball to Tiki Barber going left. But will the run-shy consider actually handing the ball off?

Washington's offensive line couldn't contain the Giants pass rush even though they rarely blitzed. With tackle Chris Samuels hurting, 42-year-old veteran Ray Brown -- who started his career in St. Louis for the Cardinals -- was forced into action, and was awful. But Philadelphia's pass rush isn't as good as years past, and the complex blitz schemes of coordinator Jim Johnson have led to just 15 sacks.

The defensive line is also just one of many areas where the Eagles are hurting badly. Three defensive linemen are listed as questionable, including pass rush specialist Jevon Kearse. Star wide receiver Terrell Owens is questionable with a sprained ankle. Punter Dirk Johnson, the only strong point as the rest of Philadelphia's special teams collapsed, is now out for the year with a hamstring injury, replaced by rookie Reggie Hodges. Quarterback Donovan McNabb is trying to play through bruised ribs and a sports hernia without missing games to regain his health, and he's suffering badly. His ability to scramble is gone, making him easier to game plan, and many of his throws are off-target.

The Eagles shut down San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson two weeks ago and then were mauled by Denver's Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell, so it is hard to tell how Washington's Clinton Portis will fare. But Philadelphia's clearest defensive weakness plays right into Washington's favor: the Eagles cannot contain the opposition's best receiver.

Remove San Francisco's Brandon Lloyd, and opposing no. 1 receivers average 91 yards and a touchdown against Philadelphia while catching 78 percent of passes. Making things even worse, cornerback Lito Sheppard played last week despite a knee injury, and was repeatedly burned deep. How will the Eagles stop Washington's Santana Moss, whose 777 receiving yards are more than anyone except the aforementioned Steve Smith?

The Redskins have built their winning record on some lucky breaks, and last year's Eagles would have been just the team to bring them back to earth. But these are not last year's Eagles, and advantages in both health and home-field give Washington a clear edge.

With Holmes on the Decline, Johnson Has Arrived as Kansas City's Primary Weapon

By Michael David Smith

Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil has always valued loyalty, a trait that has won him almost universal admiration from his players. But this season, it could end up costing Kansas City a playoff spot.

Vermeil exercises his loyalty by giving the bulk of the team's rushing attempts to a trusty veteran, Priest Holmes, instead of a superior player, young backup Larry Johnson. Last week's loss to the division rival San Diego Chargers was the latest demonstration of how Johnson runs more effectively but Vermeil sticks with Holmes. Johnson gained 55 yards on six carries, but Vermeil's game plan called for Holmes, who ended up with 38 yards on 14 carries, to get the lion's share of the playing time.

Vermeil became Kansas City's head coach in 2001, and signing Holmes as a free agent from Baltimore was one of his first personnel moves. He planned to use Holmes the same way he used Marshall Faulk in St. Louis: as the focal point of the offense as both a runner and a receiver.

For three years, it worked. Holmes averaged more than 1,500 yards rushing from 2001-03, added more than 600 receiving yards each year, and scored a league-record 27 touchdowns in 2003. But two things happened in 2004. First, Holmes hurt his knee and missed half the season. Second, Johnson, Kansas City's first-round draft pick in 2003, emerged as one of football's most promising backs. Now Holmes is 32 and on the downside of his career, while Johnson is 25 and in his prime. The only thing separating Holmes from the bench is Vermeil's loyalty.

Vermeil plays Holmes for the first two offensive series of each game, Johnson for the third, and they alternate using that two-to-one ratio for the rest of the game. Not surprisingly, Holmes loves this game plan because it keeps him in the starting role and while giving his worn-down body some rest. But Johnson has made no secret that he thinks he deserves to be the team's top option.

Johnson might get a chance to prove the point when 4-3 Kansas City takes on the Oakland Raiders Sunday, as Holmes is doubtful with a concussion. Johnson runs faster than Holmes, and when he gets into space, only the speediest defensive backs can catch him from behind. Holmes, meanwhile, has lost his speed the way so many running backs do when age and injuries catch up with them. He can still find creases in opposing defenses, but he's no longer the explosive back of a few years ago.

This season, Johnson has 75 carries for 399 yards, for 5.3 yards a carry. Holmes has 119 carries for 451 yards, for 3.8 yards a carry. Holmes has a reputation for more consistently getting into the end zone and gaining first downs, but this season Johnson and Holmes have identical numbers in that regard: both have scored on 5% of their carries and gained first downs on 24%.

Before his injury last season, Holmes was especially valuable because of his skill as a receiver. But he has lost the speed to turn screen passes into long gains. Last Sunday, both backs caught three passes, but Holmes had only 15 receiving yards to Johnson's 28.

Kansas City chose Johnson after a senior season at Penn State in which he gained more than 2,000 yards. Many questioned why the Chiefs, who had glaring needs on defense and a stud at running back, would take another runner in the first round. An unhappy Johnson ran only 20 times in his rookie season, and early in his second season, Vermeil criticized Johnson publicly, saying it was time for him to "take the diapers off." But since getting his first extended playing time shortly after that, Johnson has excelled. He's the only young blood on the Chiefs' aging offense, and he'll play a significant role in the franchise's future.

But he ought to play a bigger role in the franchise's present. Instead, Vermeil, who is expected to retire at the end of the season, will go out as a coach who shows fierce loyalty to his older players. That makes it less likely he'll go out a winner.

These articles appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.

Posted by: admin on 04 Nov 2005

22 comments, Last at 12 Nov 2005, 10:09pm by Jerry


by charles (not verified) :: Sat, 11/05/2005 - 10:51am

good article, always enjoy the capsules of upcoming games. as a redskins fan the thing that worries me is if the skins come out with a conservative game plan to try to win the game in the fourth quarter. they can use moss to get out to a quick start and negate any ideas of philly attacking their injured run defense. And good god, i know washington has like one draft pick on the first day but can they find an offensive tackle to back up samuels and jansen, it seems like they get hurt every year.

by bob (not verified) :: Sat, 11/05/2005 - 11:31am

"Of course, Miami’s front seven ranks just behind in second place, and Carolina running back Stephen Davis is averaging a dismal three yards per carry."

Is Miami in the article above supposed to be Tampa Bay?

by admin :: Sat, 11/05/2005 - 2:01pm


by Kibbles (not verified) :: Sat, 11/05/2005 - 3:32pm

MDS, I think you're a little heavy on the criticisms of Holmes over Johnson. Yes, in some games, Holmes has clearly been the worse runner. In some games, he's clearly been the BETTER runner. I checked the stats to see where they were on DVOA, and I was actually shocked how much higher Johnson rated than Holmes, because watching the games, most of the time Holmes looks like the guy I'd want running for my team.

Johnson has a lot of speed, but he doesn't break tackles. He goes down at first contact, he doesn't fight for extra yardage, he's still not as good in blitz pickup. Holmes repeatedly gets hit behind the line and shakes free to turn a 2 yard loss into a 2 yard gain. And while he may have "lost the speed to turn screen passes into long gains", he still has all the shiftiness he once had, as evidenced by that screen pass he turned into a long (70+ yard) gain just a couple of weeks ago.

I'm always leery of using DVOA to say that a backup is better than a starter, because I feel like teams approach the two different runners in two different ways, and because I think simply running the ball isn't the whole story of what an RB does. They also help the passing game through blitz pickup and even through intimidation by forcing the other team to stack the box. If we could see offensive DVOA numbers for KC's offense with Holmes in vs. with Johnson in, then that's one thing. If KC's entire offense is clearly better with Johnson in, then I'll concede the point in a heartbeat. After watching the games, though, I just feel like I worry more about KC with Holmes in than with Johnson.

Remember, too, like the Tatum Bell/Mike Anderson situation, perhaps the reason Johnson is doing so well in DVOA is that he's always relatively fresh and playing against a relatively tired defense. Let's see how Johnson does with the fulltime role, first.

by jin (not verified) :: Sat, 11/05/2005 - 6:58pm

"Johnson has a lot of speed, but he doesn’t break tackles. He goes down at first contact, he doesn’t fight for extra yardage, he’s still not as good in blitz pickup."

That's not true - Johnson is always breaking tackles and I can think of several instances where he has turned what should be a loss into a five yard game - dragging three defenders with him.

But it shouldn't be an issue this weekend because it looks like Priest is going to be either out or very limited.

by jim\'s apple pie (not verified) :: Sat, 11/05/2005 - 8:00pm

Of course, it wasn't like Johnson was being DVOA-like effective either. He gained most of his yardage on one 46 yard run, meaning that his other 5 rushes went for only 9 yards.

Btw, I re-watched the SD-KC game this morning, and Trent Green must have had the least impressive good game ever. He was not throwing the ball well at all, but it seemed like the Charger'd defense decided that it was garbage time WAY too soon. He had a couple of horribly thrown balls that were only catches because of great efforts by the receivers -- like that shoe-string catch made by Horn (I think) near the sideline.

Also, I feel like I could throw for 250 yards against the San Diego secondary.

by Michael David Smith :: Sat, 11/05/2005 - 8:13pm

What does DVOA-like effective mean? Johnson's DVOA is significantly better than Holmes'. Heck, his DPAR is better, even though Holmes has a lot more carries.

by michael (not verified) :: Sat, 11/05/2005 - 10:06pm

I've been a Chiefs fan so long that I remember Mike Garrett. I know that Derrick Thomas was not the greatest linebacker in team history; that honor belongs to Bobby Bell, w/ Willie Lanier second.

Larry Johnson is the future in KC and based on my observations of this season, he's pretty much the present as well. Holmes has definitely lost his burst and, perhaps most salient, his propensity for injury is increasing. The 70-yard reception/run of a couple of weeks ago had less to do with speed and more to do with a veteran's ability to set up blocks and team-wide hustle to get downfield and throw said blocks (go Dante Hall!). LJ should be playing more.

by dk (not verified) :: Sun, 11/06/2005 - 1:05am

The Skins are lucky to have a winning record? They have the 11th best DVOA in the league, and they've played 5 of their 7 games against top-10 DVOA teams.

They've definitely earned their 4-3. Whatever lucky breaks they had in their first 3 games were more than atoned for in Denver and KC.

by patrick (not verified) :: Sun, 11/06/2005 - 4:52am

As a lifelong Chiefs fan, Priest Holmes has been one of my favorite players to watch, but even I think it's time to hand the ball over to LJ. Priest is not the explosive back he used to be, and his body won't last much longer. From watching every Chiefs game this year, I think the optimal way to use both of KC's backs would be to start LJ and give the ball to Priest on 3rd and short and on the goal line. Priest's best move has always been diving over the pile for one yard, he's pretty much automatic, so they should use him in situations where he can do that. It's one of the most exciting things to watch in all of football, and it was the key to his 27 touchdown season. But LJ should be getting all of the carries on 1st and 2nd down, period.

by Michael David Smith :: Sun, 11/06/2005 - 7:21pm

Thanks for making me look smart, Larry.

by Jake S. (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 3:13am

Priest Holmes was better with last year's O-line, and even better with the year before that's line.

LJ makes up some of the gap because Roaf is not healthy, and so the team runs fewer sweeps and more quick hitting downfield runs.

I still think a healthy Priest is much harder to stop than LJ, although LJ is a nice option against teams that don't play the right style of D against him.

by Jake S. (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 3:17am

I should be clear as to why I think this.

Priest knows how to run. His advantage has never been mostly because of speed or strength. It's becuase he was perfect for running sweeps and recieving. He has incredible feel and vision.

LJ does not know how to run like that, and can't catch the ball as well.

by Michael David Smith :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 10:11pm

Then why is the Chiefs' running game so much more effective when it's LJ and not Priest running the ball?

by Jake S. (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 11:11pm

Willie Roaf has been injured, Michael...

LJ is a downfield runner who doesn't catch the ball nearly as well as Priest.

The difference is when the Chiefs play a decent defense that does not allow the RB to run with his eyes closed, LJ becomes a 2 YPC rusher, while Priest is still effective. See: the Denver game.

Take a look at FO's own Adjusted Line Yards.

It's down from 4.7 to 4.27.

And finally, why do you think it's Larry Johnson doing the work? Last year's stats?

Derrick Blaylock had as much success with the Chiefs as LJ or Priest last year.

Maybe it's not the RBs at all, otherwise you would be asking "Why was the running game so much more effective with Blaylock?" We could go with what we do know, that Priest Holmes is the smarter runner.

by Michael David Smith :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 12:05am

No, Holmes is not a better reciever, Johnson is. You're thinking of the Holmes of a few years ago. Right now Johnson is the better player. That he showed it on Sunday with Roaf out is further evidence of that.

by Jake S. (not verified) :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 1:59am

Then LJ should probably catch a higher % of the passes thrown to him (Nope, 55% of about 20 passes to 66% of about 33 passes) and go for more yardage (about 5 yards per pass to about 6 yards).

by Michael David Smith :: Wed, 11/09/2005 - 5:16pm

Way to crib stats from Football Outsiders while ignoring the more important stats that are right in front of you. DVOA is a better stat than yards or catch percentage, and Johnson has a higher receiving DVOA than Holmes. That you would simply ignore that and use inferior stats to support your weak argument indicates that there's no point in having a further discussion with you.

by Jake S. (not verified) :: Thu, 11/10/2005 - 3:37pm

Nice cop out.

I'm still confused as to why we can say LJ is a better runner than Priest by using last year's DVOA,

but we can't say the same thing about Derrick Blaylock.

They had the same numbers.

Oh, and why does LJ catch fewer passes thrown for fewer yards, if he's a better reciever?

by Sweetness (not verified) :: Fri, 11/11/2005 - 10:41am

Jake S, you're the only one here talking about last year's DVOA. Anyone who both knows anything about football and has watched the Chiefs this year knows that Johnson is the superior runner, which is why he's averaging a yard and a half more per carry, has a better rushing DVOA, has a better receiving DVOA, and has a better DPAR despite fewer attempts. You say things like "Priest knows how to run," which are the types of unsupported comments we hear from the TV commentator idiots.

by Jake S. (not verified) :: Sat, 11/12/2005 - 8:33pm


So if we're going only by the stats, why did Blaylock do as well as LJ, last year?

Don't lump me in with idiot announcers. I know football, you know how to read this years stats, but not last years...

Why did Priest Holmes succeed? He was never the fastest, most agile, strongest, etc.

Priest does have better vision and uses his blocks better than LJ.

I think it's pretty funny that you think that all a RB does is run straight ahead with his eyes closed.

Maybe you're a Joe Gibbs fan...

by Jerry (not verified) :: Sat, 11/12/2005 - 10:09pm

Holmes is the better RB but with his injuries its time to give it over to Johnson. I think Johnson needs to take over and he will be the better RB over some time with experience.Thats all holmes has over him.