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30 Sep 2006

Game Previews: SD-BAL, CHI-SEA

by Aaron Schatz

The two biggest games of NFL Week 4 each match up two of the seven remaining unbeaten teams. They will be played on the first day of October, but these games may have major implications for playoff seeding in January.


(Sunday, 1:00pm)

For the first two weeks of the season, these were the two most dominant teams in the NFL. San Diego won its first two games by the combined score of 67-7; Baltimore won its first two by the combined score of 55-6.

But it's hard to get a handle on what those scores mean this early in the year. Historically, blowouts are more prevalent in September than they are during the rest of the NFL season, so those wins might have been a bit closer later in the year. Not one of the teams that fell to San Diego or Baltimore has won a game against anyone else this year either -- including Cleveland, which very nearly upset the Ravens last week before a late interception gave Baltimore the chance to pull out a 15-14 victory.

Just like every year, the Ravens are driven by their defense, the best in the league so far. But their offense is still mediocre despite the headline addition of quarterback Steve McNair. Right now, the problem is that the Ravens can't seem to put together a game where they are successful both on the ground and through the air. In Weeks 1 and 3, the Ravens averaged nearly six net yards per pass but only ran for 3.5 yards per carry. In Week 2, they gained five yards per carry but a dismal 3.6 net yards per pass.

For the Chargers, on the other hand, everything has hit on all cylinders. First-time starting quarterback Philip Rivers looks great. The Chargers offensive line has yet to give up a sack, and left tackle Marcus McNeil was just named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month. LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner are an awesome one-two punch on the ground. The front seven has been so ferocious rushing the passer that San Diego's glaring weakness, its secondary, hasn't even come into play.

To win this game, Baltimore has to attack that weakness. One reason to believe that they can: McNair is leaning heavily on number one receiver Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap. And the only receivers to have any success against San Diego early on have been the opposing number one receivers, Drew Bennett and Randy Moss, and Tennessee tight end Bo Scaife. (Unfortunately for Baltimore, Heap is questionable with an ankle injury and may not play.)

When Baltimore's great defense meets San Diego's powerful offense, the result is a draw. But unless McNair can withstand the Chargers pass rush to make big plays through the air, San Diego's defense against Baltimore's offense is assuredly not a draw, and this game won't be either.


(Sunday, 8:15pm)

This could be a very early preview of the NFC Championship. Both Seattle and Chicago dominate their divisions with very little competition (except perhaps for Minnesota, which played Chicago close last week). Furthermore, the rotating division schedule that matches up the NFC West and NFC North means each team also gets to play the weak division foes of the other.

The trade for ex-Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch, combined with injuries to the top two tight ends, has effectively turned Seattle into an old school run-and-shoot offense. In the second half of last week's game with the Giants, the Seahawks used four wideouts on 16 of 37 second-half plays even though they led the game by at least three touchdowns during most of that period.

With 2005 NFL MVP Shaun Alexander out with a foot injury, the four-wide sets may be even more prevalent. But Maurice Morris isn't necessarily a big step down from Alexander. In fact, on a per-play basis, Morris has been just as good as Alexander over the past three seasons according to Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metrics. The main difference between the two running backs is Alexander's durability -- and after last year's heavy workload, it's clear that difference isn't as big as it used to be.

Neither Morris nor Alexander has been able to get much going this year because of the departure of guard Steve Hutchinson, followed by a series of injuries on the offensive line. Against Chicago, the two starting guards will be Rob Sims, a rookie, and Chris Spencer, a second-year player whose main position is actually center. The Seahawks will also have to play backup Tom Ashworth at right tackle if starter Sean Locklear (questionable) can't go. The stellar Chicago front seven should have a field day against these second-stringers, especially when they bring a blitz with the 2005 Defensive Player of the Year, Brian Urlacher.

(Late update: It looks like both Locklear and guard Chris Gray will play, so Sims and Ashworth will not start.)

The Bears do have a matchup problem with Seattle, however, because no linebacker in the NFL is better in pass coverage than Chicago's Lance Briggs. When Seattle goes four-wide, Briggs has no tight end or fullback to cover. The Bears will have to cover Seattle's slot receivers with nickel back Ricky Manning -- who last year in Carolina was a big reason why the Panthers were horrible against the pass on third downs -- or one of two rookies, free safety Danieal Manning and dime back Devin Hester.

When the Bears have the ball, opponents have been stacking the line to stop running back Thomas Jones, and he is averaging a miserable 3.0 yards per carry because of it. But it's possible Seattle will be able to stop Jones without taking a safety out of pass coverage. Last year, Seattle ranked third in DVOA against the run, and the Seahawks are fourth so far this year.

When quarterback Rex Grossman has the ball, things get interesting, because so far both Chicago's passing game and Seattle's pass defense are improved over last year. The Bears are running well-designed plays that get their receivers open; in particular, they're living off the deep in route when a safety is playing the run. But when he's pressured, Grossman tends to run backwards and throw wild passes instead of just taking a sack. The Seahawks bring a ton of pressure with just their front four and an occasional linebacker, and they led the NFL in sacks a year ago despite almost never blitzing defensive backs.

This should be the best game of the week: two great teams, evenly matched, both playing well in every phase of the game except running the ball -- which means that no matter who takes the early lead, it will be hard to run out the clock and block the possibility of an exciting comeback.

This article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 30 Sep 2006

23 comments, Last at 01 Oct 2006, 10:13pm by The Mulgrew


by Jesse (not verified) :: Sat, 09/30/2006 - 6:12pm


by Lee S. Phillips (not verified) :: Sat, 09/30/2006 - 6:19pm

Much has been made of Hutchinson's departure. Hutchinson is arguably the best guard in the NFL and Seattle's drop off in line play is attributed to it. The drop of in line play, I believe, is not necessarily attributed to a decline in talent but more to a decline in familiarity among it's members.

by B (not verified) :: Sat, 09/30/2006 - 6:42pm

I think Seattle's demise in line play has been greatly overestimated from the Lions game. Things have been better now that they have experience together. They were fine against the Giants. The Bears will shut down thier running game, but that just means more passing yards. And with Branch, they now have the best wr corps in the league.

by Nate (not verified) :: Sat, 09/30/2006 - 6:56pm

Jesse - please review the link in my name.
The Bears media/coaching staff has been intimating that they expect to keep Briggs on the field against 4 wide sets. It should be interesting.

by Doug Farrar :: Sat, 09/30/2006 - 7:37pm

Locklear's ability to play is enormous. Without him, I don't see the Seahawks having a real shot in this game.

Re: Hutchinson, the problem wasn't so much that he left - it was that Seattle's current front office compounded the goober in not franchising him by not preparing with what I would call an "80% Solution". You can't lose the best guard in the game and post your hopes on a one-dimensional, injury-prone player like Floyd Womack, or a jack-of-all-trades like Tom Ashworth. Not when your team's offense is built around that left side, especially in the the red zone.

Spencer is a good stopgap - he's a first-round talent who played some guard in college. Strong AND athletic, which is what that position requires. But he's supposed to be the center of the future. Sims is a very talented rookie, but he needs time.

by beedubyuh (not verified) :: Sat, 09/30/2006 - 7:46pm

God, I can't wait for this game. People at work actually asked me if I had any plans for the weekend. As if they weren't going to be like me and spend all of it in preparation for and then enjoyment of this wonderful matchup.

Silly people.

by jooker (not verified) :: Sat, 09/30/2006 - 7:57pm

i will be watching the seattle game because i had to make the awful choice to start david carr not hasselbeck. and then i have chicago's defense. dangit! i hate the fantastic fantasy football fantasies i get into...

by paytonrules (not verified) :: Sat, 09/30/2006 - 8:10pm

I actually think Urlacher is better in pass coverage - but you see less of it in the Cover 2 since he runs straight back so frequently.

Which may mean the Bears have the best 2 linebackers in football in pass coverage - coupled with a defensive line that can cause a lot of problems to a five man O-line. The more I think about it the more I think that there is a reason the Run & shoot went away.

by young curmudgeon (not verified) :: Sat, 09/30/2006 - 10:23pm

Wow, Ricky Manning and Danieal Manning on the same team and in the same game. Will someone please alert the media that two Mannings are in the same football game?!? Have we ever seen anything like this before? This is really exciting, both Mannings playing at the same time........Uh, what's that you say?

by Marko (not verified) :: Sat, 09/30/2006 - 11:29pm

Nate is right. The Bears have been saying all week that they will keep in Briggs rather than replace him with a dime back.

"Wow, Ricky Manning and Danieal Manning on the same team and in the same game. Will someone please alert the media that two Mannings are in the same football game?!?"

The Bears play the Giants later this year. So there will be three Mannings on the field at the same time!

by Bobman (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 1:55am

And most likely one will be passing to the other two.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 1:57am

Sorry, Marko, you set me up so perfectly for that baby. It'll be another game for Archie and Olivia to pull out their hair on TV again, though.

by Marko (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 2:42am

Bobman: As a Bears fan, I hope you are right.

by Tom Kelso (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 10:07am

It's disappointing that Heap may not be at full speed, for there are some real depth questions in San Diego's secondary right now, especially at safety. McNair has shown enough escape ability to stay upright so far, but SD's pass rush is a little different from Oakland's.

So is Baltimore's, which is why I don't buy the Chargers' "powerful" offense. Rivers is going to have to show a lot more than he did against the Raiders and Titans to beat a top-tier NFL defense, and while having LT will definitely help, I just don't see calling that matchup a "draw". If he winds up on his back as much as Charlie Frye, I don't see him avoiding the kinds of turnovers that take the ball out of LT's hands.

Oh, and this game is on the road, in front of a very hostile crowd, and West Coast teams making their first trip east for a 1:00 game don't do very well. This game will be who gets the last turnover close enough to score, because neither will move the ball much.

by cinfan (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 10:23am

RE: Jooker #7
I really don't have anything against you personally at all, but I have been spouting this theory to my friends for the last couple of years and your post is a pretty clear example of what I am talking about. I think that in the long run fantasy football will be detrimental to the NFL's popularity because of the way it fractures the fans loyalty to their home (or adopted home) team. It seams like a fad to me and after the novelty wears off you end up with a more washed out nfl fan. In my opinion rivalries and home team passion are the lifeblood of the NFL and anything that waters down that reality is not healthy in the long run. It's just a hunch but it feels like it has some legs.

by James C (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 10:23am


Sometimes they just sit up and ask to be kicked - like a little yappy dog and an inviting looking fence ..... three points!!!

by G Sparks (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 11:40am

I get the feeling that Hasselbeck is going to pick apart the Bears secondary this week, especially if they keep Briggs in. But I'm afraid to start him in fantasy anyway. Playing Vick or Alex Smith is the right call. Right? Right?

by B (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 12:23pm

Playing Vick or Alex Smith is the right call. Right? Right?
No. Always start your studs.

by Greg (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 12:31pm

I think there's something to be said for not starting your studs when your back-up is playing Arizona and your starter is playing Chicago. Tough call though,

by jooker (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 1:41pm

re: cinfan #15

there's a brilliant t-shirt that onion dot com sells with the slogan "the sports team from my area is better than the sports team from your area!" this points out the arbitrariness in geographical "loyalty". although i take your point that there are certain detriments to fantasy football, there are also significant detriments to team "loyalty" (as myself who grew up in south florida during the late 80s-early 90s enjoying "the danster" marino and now lives in southern indiana and "roots" for the similarly playoff-inept colts can attest). i think fantasy football is simply another way to enjoy the game. both ways can guarantee anger and frustration and, dare i say, tears in beers.

however, i think we can unversally agree that bill maas sucks!

by SJM (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 2:21pm


I think his point is that fantasy will, in the long run, weaken fan interest in the NFL, while geographically-based loyalty will keep it strong.

by Smeghead (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 7:28pm

15, 21 -- that's a nice just-so story, but is there any evidence for it? Fantasy football has been going strong for a couple of decades -- baseball even longer -- and it's been enormous since the late 90's when the Internet put it mere clicks away from everyone.

So when does the effect kick in and how will we tell? It's not Keynes' "long run," is it?

by The Mulgrew (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 10:13pm

Fantasy football keeps me interesting in all the games. Before fantasy football I only cared about the Eags and the Eags' main rivals. After that I watched an occasional game and all the highlights.

Now with fantasy football I like to pay attention to all the games. It is how I discovered players like 49ers QB Alex Smith.