Game Preview: NYJ-NE / KC-SD Switch Special Teams

by Aaron Schatz

Thanks to the New York Sun for allowing us to reprint these articles originally written for their newspaper earlier this week.

Jets, Patriots Meet for Control of AFC East

Originally published in the New York Sun October 22

When the New York Jets meet the New England Patriots in Foxboro this Sunday, many people will see it as the logical extension of the rivalry between two cities, a rivalry which this week gave us such historic moments on the baseball field.

But the Jets and Patriots don't require any Yankee-Red Sox metaphors in order to provide an engaging storyline. This rivalry also has history, filled with hard-fought games and reciprocal pilfering of genius coaches. Now it provides this season's last chance to watch two undefeated teams go head to head.

The Jets and Patriots enter this game with similar records but not with similar reputations. The Patriots have won an NFL-record 20 straight games and are considered the best team in football. The Jets went 6-10 last season and had to come back in the second half to beat the lightly-regarded San Francisco 49ers last week.

Yet there are several similarities between the teams, beginning on offense. Each team features an intelligent, talented young quarterback who spreads the ball among multiple receivers and rarely makes a bad decision. New England's Tom Brady has thrown only four interceptions in 2004; New York's Chad Pennington only two.

The main difference between the two is that Pennington leads the NFL in passes to running backs with 58,including 29 to underrated fullback Jerald Sowell. Brady is near the bottom of the league with 19 passes to running backs, and the Patriots often replace the fullback with a second tight end.

Each team features an underrated offensive line that blocks well on both passing and rushing plays. The Jets and Patriots have each allowed only six sacks, less than half the league average for the season thus far. Both teams are near the bottom of the league in runs stuffed for loss or no gain.

Coincidentally, both teams are struggling with injuries on the line: Patriots right tackle Tom Ashworth is questionable with a bad back and Jets guards Pete Kendall and Brandon Moore are battling toe and hamstring injuries, respectively.

Each team also features a veteran running back experiencing a late-career resurgence. Curtis Martin of the Jets leads the league with 122.6 yards per game, and Corey Dillon of the Patriots is fifth with 104.4 yards. Both backs specialize in consistent success rather than spectacular runs.

Measured by a statistic called Running Back Success Rate, which judges each carry based on down and distance needed to continue the drive, Martin is the second-most consistent running back with at least 100 carries this season (59% success rate) while Dillon ranks as the fourth-most consistent (53% success rate).

The difference between the Jets and Patriots comes on defense, in particular pass defense. Before the season Jets fans were worried about a leaky secondary, and not much has changed. Gang Green has a rookie, Erik Coleman, at free safety, and a refugee from the Arizona Cardinals, David Barrett, at corner. They've allowed 6.7 net yards per pass play,10th highest in the NFL, while the Patriots have allowed only 5.7 net yards per pass play, 24th in the NFL.

Both teams have struggled in stopping the run this year, but in different ways. New England fans know that run defense has been the Achilles heel of their seemingly perfect team this season. They are last in the league at stuffing runs at the line of scrimmage or for a loss. And yet, just like in 2003, they are first in the league at preventing long runs more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.

Conventional wisdom says that the Patriots miss run-stuffing tackle Ted Washington, who signed with Oakland in the off-season, but the hole in the New England run defense has come on runs to the left. Surprisingly, that's the home of the Patriots' best defender, Richard Seymour. Opponents are double-teaming Seymour to take him out of the play and then running in that direction. It's getting them good yardage, but no breakaways.

The Jets run defense is exactly the opposite. They are second in the league at stuffing runs at the line of scrimmage, but have allowed more yards per carry because they've allowed big plays. The Patriots have given up only six runs of double-digit yards, and no run longer than 16 yards. The Jets have allowed 11 runs of double-digit yards, and six runs that were as long as 16 yards or more.

All told, the Patriots and Jets are equal on offense, and the Patriots have an advantage on defense. But Jets fans can take heart in an advantage that few will notice: field position.

Using a formula that derives the value of field position from how often NFL teams score from each position on the field, the Jets' punting unit has been worth roughly 3.1 points over league average this season. Only seven of 24 Jets punts have been returned this year (only San Diego has allowed a lower percentage of punts returned) and only one of those for longer than 12 yards.

The Patriots, on the other hand, have had the third-worst punt return unit in the league, losing 4.8 points worth of field position compared to NFL average.

If this game plays out according to form, both teams will successfully mix the run and the pass and make very few mistakes. The difference is that the New England defense is more likely to take advantage of the rare mistakes made by the Jets than the other way around.

Just as in any game, an unlucky turnover could change momentum, but expect Tom Brady to complete a few more passes through holes in the Jets' coverage. There's a good chance we'll see Corey Dillon taking it to the house with a highlight-quality double-digit carry, and that should be the difference in the ballgame.

But if the Jets defense can play better than they have over the first five games of this season, and if Pennington is smart enough to adjust to the constantly changing New England defensive schemes, the Jets can avenge their baseball brethren with a streak-ending upset. This game is the Jets' chance to prove they should be considered one of the top teams in the NFL. Twenty wins in a row is a great accomplishment, but a Jets win will make New England just another team in second place.

Erratic Special Teams Spell Changing Fortunes in AFC West

Originally published in the New York Sun October 20

Up is down and down is up this year in the AFC West, home to one of this year's most disappointing teams and one of the biggest surprises. The Kansas City Chiefs, coming off a 13-3 season in which they won their first nine games, are 1-4 with every possible break going against them. On the other hand, you have the San Diego Chargers, who won only four games last season and were expected to be even worse this year. Instead, they are 3-3 and would have already matched their win total from 2003 if not for the fourth-quarter heroics of Falcons quarterback Michael Vick on Sunday.

The Chiefs and Chargers are not only linked because they share a division, but also because, when it comes to each team's changing fortunes, one mirrors the other. The decline of Kansas City and rise of San Diego demonstrates the importance -- and unpredictability -- of special teams.

Football writers often make vague reference to the importance of special teams, but only field goal kickers ever really get much attention. Last year was an exception, as Kansas City returner Dante Hall became a media darling. (How often does a kick return specialist show up on Late Night with David Letterman?) Hall returned a punt or kick for a touchdown in four straight games early in the season, and by midseason the talk was less about how to stop Priest Holmes and more about how to kick the ball away from Hall.

Spurred in part by Hall's success, I developed a metric at Football Outsiders to measure the value of special teams. In general, each yard on the field has a value based on whether the offense or defense is likely to score the next points, and how many points they are likely to score. The value of each yard goes up gradually from -2 points on your own goal line, the value of a safety, to 7 points on your opponent's goal line, the value of a touchdown. Kicks and punts, as well as returns, are judged by how much field position value they gain for the return team compared to the league average from the location of the kickon kicks from the same line of scrimmage, adjusted for weather and altitude. Field goal kicking is measured based on how often a field goal goes through the uprights compared to the league average from each specific distance.

According to this measure, the field position that Kansas City gained from kick and punt returns in 2003 -- including Hall's four touchdowns -- was worth 27.1 points compared to returns for an average team. Hall was far and away the most valuable return man in the league; only Jerry Azumah of Chicago was even close. In total, the Kansas City special teams -- including kicker Morten Andersen, punter Jason Baker, return coverage, and other returns along with those by Hall -- were worth 31.5 points over an average team, second in the league behind Baltimore.

What a difference a year makes. Before the season the Chiefs waived Andersen and Baker and replaced them with two rookies, kicker Lawrence Tynes and punter Steve Cheek. The result has not been pretty. This week saw perhaps most emotionally damaging loss of the year, a 22-16 defeat in Jacksonville where Tynes missed a field goal and an extra point in the fourth quarter. But Kansas City's special teams were a problem long before Tynes hit the right upright with his extra point attempt on Sunday.

Overall, including punts, kicks, and returns, Kansas City's special teams have been 14.7 points worse than average, the worst performance in the NFL this season. Even Hall has been subpar; his average on kick returns has dropped from 25.9 yards to 20.9 yards, while his average on punt returns, including fair catches, has dropped from 16.3 yards to 10.3 yards.

Meanwhile, San Diego's special teams have undergone the opposite turnaround. Last season, special teams cost the Chargers 17.3 points compared to the average NFL team, which ranked them 27th in the NFL. Particularly atrocious were Steve Christie's kickoffs, which cost the Chargers 14.3 points worth of field position. The entire season, Christie had not a single touchback -- not even when the Chargers played in Denver.

When the Chargers selected Iowa kicker Nate Kaeding with their third-round pick in the 2004 draft, it was seen by many observers as proof that the Chargers were the NFL's worst-run franchise. But between the fine play of Kaeding and the return of kickoff returner Tim Dwight from an injury-riddled 2003 campaign, the San Diego special teams rank fourth in value this season. Kaeding has been perfect on field goals, including two over 50 yards, and good on kickoffs as well.

The special teams switch between San Diego and Kansas City is actually not very surprising. In general, special teams performance is far less consistent from year to year than offense or defense. Of the 18 teams that received positive value from their special teams in 2003, 10 have received negative value so far this season.

There are plenty of reasons for this. Special teams get far fewer opportunities to make a mark, so a few big plays can skew a team's statistics. Special teams also undergo heavy personnel changes between seasons. Lower-round rookies have to prove themselves on coverage teams, replacing more expensive veterans who get cut. Return men often graduate into the starting lineup as defensive backs or wide receivers, with rookies taking their place. Second-tier free agents who fill slots on special teams move from city to city every year or two. So do many kickers and punters.

Baltimore is a major exception -- the Ravens led the league in special teams value in 2003 and lead again in 2004. This is partly because they carry separate kickoff and field goal kickers who have both been great, and partly because of the performance of rookie return man B.J. Sams makes up for an off-year from 2003's top-rated punter, Dave Zastudil.

The good news for the Chiefs is that some of their problems can be fixed. They waived Cheek and brought back last year's punter, Baker, and you can't expect Tynes to miss extra points very often. The bad news for Kansas City -- and good news for San Diego -- is that special teams are much more consistent from the beginning to the season to the end of the season than they are from year to year. Special teams will probably be helping the Chargers win games, and the Chiefs lose them, for the rest of 2004.


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