Wednesday, October 05, 2011

NFL Week 4: And then there were two ...

It was the last full week before byes began (remember when teams might have a bye in Week 3?), but some teams didn't get the memo and left early. The Colts probably wish they could have a bye, or at least some healthy players, while the Packers might want to remove the bye from their schedule. (Note: neither team is actually off this week.)
  • For the second straight week, the Lions completely shut down in the first half; for the second straight week, the Lions mounted an improbable comeback. Two years ago, Detroit's defense had just 9 interceptions. This year, through 4 games, they have 7. Sure, some of those have been on the quarterback in question, but a good number of them have come as a result of pressure. Despite what Cris Collinsworth thinks, you can't simply turtle at halftime, especially not with Stafford and Johnson finding single coverage wherever they need it: you must throw the ball, and you must do it carefully. (Besides, the Lions are once again near the top of the NFL in power run defense – 2nd in power success and 7th in stuffs through 4 weeks – so conservative play calls aren't going to work.)
  • TonyRomoTonyRomoTonyRomo. I know. But the Cowboys managed no sacks of Stafford (the third Lions opponent to be shut out), and you already know that on the clinching touchdown, the Cowboys had 12 players on the field, and only one was covering Megatron. The problems in Dallas are not just at QB ... and as with other teams, there simply are no comparable options. Do Cowboys fans chanting for change realize that Jon Kitna is 39 years old and has thrown 2 interceptions in 10 passes this season? Romo's making bad decisions, but he is what you have. Better to learn to work with him than to swap him for someone most likely worse.
  • What goes around comes around: Pittsburgh is being beaten by teams with good defense and running games and James Harrison is sidelined indefinitely after another helmet-to-helmet collision. (While I hesitate to wish ill of anyone, Harrison deserves such an injury more than most, simply from his insistence on breaking rules and endangering fellow NFLPA members. If the union will not stand up for the victims, then it's up to karma to take care of Harrison. I hope he makes a complete physical recovery, but can never play football again.) The Steelers' OL has been savaged by injuries, so Roethlisberger's insistence on holding the ball to make a play is costing them bigtime. Five sacks in 35 dropbacks ... Pittsburgh's overall ASR is 9.3%, but it doesn't all come from the backup linemen. Their QB needs to learn to get rid of the ball more quickly, or else Mike Tomlin will be choosing someone from the Backup Carousel.
  • One of the NFL's best offenses took a big hit when Andre Johnson went down with a hamstring injury. Schaub has a number of weapons he can use, but he's certainly favored Johnson this year: just over one third of his completions have gone to Johnson. This isn't like the running game, where a good line allows you to use back after back and get solid production; someone's going to have to step up and be the primary threat in the passing game. (Owen Daniels is a solid TE, but Houston needs a WR to carry the load; Daniels can't open up the defense the way Johnson could.)
  • Carolina might actually have borrowed Auburn's offensive playbook from last year. It remains to be seen how often the Panthers can run the midline read, or variations on it, and keep Cam Newton intact, but if there is a QB in the league built for that kind of offense, it's Newton. The rookie has taken the worst offense in the NFL and boosted it to 9th; unfortunately, the defense is still bad and the special teams are worse. No team can be safely rebuilt in a year (see the Dolphins for proof of that), and of course there's no way to be sure that Newton will be as productive in December as he is now, but Panthers fans must have a great deal more hope now than when they thought their new young starting QB would be Jimmy Clausen. (Dear Notre Dame fans: you were completely wrong.)
  • Sorry to interrupt the euphoria in Chicago, but Sunday's game is not proof of a revitalized offense. What you saw was Carolina's defense making everything work for the Bears. The one thing the OL does well is block in power situations (100%, actually, tops in the league); 33% of their runs have been stuffed, their ASR is a whopping 10.8%, and Cutler's DYAR is worse than virtually everyone else in the league. The offense isn't very good, the defense isn't very good, and when teams stop kicking to Devin Hester, special teams won't be able to carry the team. Up next for the Bears: Detroit, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and after the bye, Philadelphia, Detroit again, San Diego, and Oakland. Cutler may not survive that run, and even if he does, the Bears will likely have no more illusions about repeating their NFC Championship appearance.
  • Minnesota isn't really that bad, you know. They just keep giving games away. OK, you're right, I don't believe that either. The Vikings just aren't very good. They can't keep expecting 150+ from Peterson combined with a couple of rainbows from McNabb. The aging Syracuse veteran passed his prime long ago, and we're already seeing signs that perhaps what happened in Washington wasn't all on the Shanahans. Minnesota is already 4 games off the pace in the North, behind not one, but two 4-0 teams, and they have yet to play the Packers. Their playoff hopes are effectively over; the purpose for McNabb's presence is gone. Now is the time to start giving Christian Ponder reps, and if McNabb won't cooperate, then deactivate him and make Joe Webb the backup. 
  • On the other hand, there's no question about how bad Kansas City is. Take a bad team, subtract a top player on both offense and defense, take into account the inexperienced head coach, and you have a recipe for disaster. To make matters worse, the Chiefs face the NFC North and AFC East ... while they've beaten Minnesota and have Miami later in the schedule, crushing losses to the Bills and Lions bode ill for games against New England and Green Bay. I would not expect either Haley or Matt Cassel to be in Kansas City next year. Cassel put up gaudy numbers in one full season in New England, but conventional stats hid what advanced metrics did not: Cassel is Just A Guy, and without the weapons he had in New England, he's really not that good ... and this season, he's been worse. (Two side notes: Scott Pioli will likely be done as well, and isn't it interesting how few people leave New England and have any measure of success?)
  • The Bills are likely a playoff-caliber team. With that in mind, the loss to Cincinnati will probably turn out to be one they regret down the road. The AFC is not short on playoff contenders, and if the Bills can't win the division (FO has them with a 32.1% chance of pulling that off), they may well be a 10- or 11-win team on the outside looking in. It's unknown whether or not the Bills can continue to survive in Buffalo – once Ralph Wilson dies, the possibility of moving will rear its head again – so it's good to see that the city may get to see one more shot at a Super Bowl win. Of course, to continue down that road, they'll have to survive their three-week trip through the NFC East. Philadelphia, the Giants, and Washington are up next, and while the Bills have arguably been playing better than all of those teams, they may not be able to afford a loss to any of them. 
  • Cincinnati seems like a Dallas-type team, but to a lesser extent: winning games you thought they might lose, losing games you thought they might win. Andy Dalton is surviving his rookie season, Cedric Benson is having a pretty decent year, the defense is better than expected, and Mike Brown hasn't broken anything yet. It's a shame that the iron hand the NFL wields with respect to its marketing isn't used internally as well. How much stronger would the league be if incompetent owners were bought out by the league? (Obviously they'd be paid back by revenue from the sale of the franchise to the new owner.) 
  • No, I didn't think the Titans would be 3-1 at this point, certainly not if Chris Johnson is having a bad season, but then that underlines the point some of us were making about CJ's demands. Unfortunately for them, RBs are fungible in the modern NFL: there's no point in paying a guy $10M if you can get reasonable performance from someone else for $2M. (You can justify a higher salary by looking at the position as requiring hazard pay, but then shouldn't that apply to just about any position?) Maybe one game is the result of a team keying on Johnson at the expense of the passing game, but I doubt that's true for all four opponents thus far. Seattle's offense isn't any good, Tennessee's offense has taken off ... perhaps Matt Hasselbeck was the guy the Vikings should have pursued.
  • The Redskins are not as good as their record. They barely beat a bad St. Louis team, squeaked past the Cardinals, and blew a game to the Cowboys. Week 1 was the only time they've looked good this season. The Rex Grossman Experience is going to blow up in Shanahan's face (either or both of them). Philadelphia is up next, and the way the Eagles have been playing, this is a game Washington can't afford to lose, not with Carolina, Buffalo, and San Francisco following. 
  • St. Louis is in an unenviable position: they're the favorite for the #1 pick at this point, and yet one of the few teams in the league who should have absolutely no interest in a rookie QB. (Bradford is not nearly what some people think he is – it's amazing how people don't bother to look at number of attempts when evaluating conventional stats – but he's no Jimmy Clausen.) Of course they can trade down, which actually might not be a bad plan no matter where they finish. There are still plenty of holes on this team, and the Rams would do well to follow the Lions' lead and work to fill many of them at once. Offensive line would be a good place to start, especially in a pass-heavy offense. You can't have your QB taking a sack every 10 attempts or so if he's throwing 40 times per game.
  • It's not Alex Smith. It's the defense, special teams, and a favorable schedule. Seattle, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia, and the Eagles seem less impressive each week. Of course, you don't have to be any good to win the NFC West, and the 49ers may just do that, but they will not be like Seattle last year. The top wild-card team could well be a 12- or 13-win team that will be mindful of 2010, and playing in San Francisco is not like playing in Seattle. The next two games are home against Tampa Bay and at Detroit; those should give us a better idea of how good San Francisco is compared to the teams they might face in the playoffs.
  • The New Orleans defense still seems to be a little worrying, but the Saints are entering a six-game stretch where the biggest threat is a pair of games against Tampa Bay. Even a split with the Bucs would leave New Orleans at 8-2, in great position for a playoff spot, and a sweep would make them 9-1 with no less than a two-game lead plus the tiebreaker against Tampa Bay. Winning the South may be necessary for a playoff run; with wild-card teams in the NFC also looking good at this point, failure to take the division could mean a road game against the NFC East winner followed by a game at Green Bay ... better to avoid the Packers for as long as possible.
  • Jacksonville is a bad team with a weak fan base and a head coach blissfully unaware of the importance of the QB position. Perhaps Garrard really did make terrible choices in practice, but clearly McCown has been no better in live games, if not significantly worse, and the Jaguars aren't good enough to provide support for a rookie QB. This franchise was given to Florida thanks to smoke and mirrors, but now that the truth is out (Jacksonville simply can't support an NFL team in the best of times, and these are not the best of times, either for the city or the team), it's hard to see this team as anything but the Los Angeles Not-Jaguars. If the team can play in the Rose Bowl or somewhere similar until the downtown stadium is built, this team is gone, and so is Del Rio. (In fact, he might be gone this season.) And why not? If LA wants to go into debt to give a billionaire a playground, let them.
  • The Falcons looked bad in their Week 1 loss to Chicago and really haven't looked impressive since; beating the Eagles isn't nearly what it should have been, and when you see the yards and points they gave up to bad offenses (the Bears and Seattle), it's fair to question whether or not this is a playoff team. Matt Ryan is alternating between good seasons and average seasons (I'd blame his stupid nickname, but then he had it after his rookie season), the running game is below par yet again (or about 1/100th of what Madden 11 and Madden 12 think it should be; then again, EA killed any chance of producing realistic sims when they moved to arcade-style play, prizing button-mashing over tactics), and the Falcons have the misfortune to be in a division with two contenders and also playing an NFC division with two contenders (the NFC North). Should Atlanta lose at Detroit, they may find it difficult to get an invitation to the postseason party unless they can drag the Buccaneers back to third, and that will be difficult given their Week 3 loss to Tampa Bay.
  • The Pete Carroll era peaked with that playoff victory over New Orleans; what's left for Seattle is a sharp decline into the Millen Pit, where double-digit losses and high draft positions await. Carroll has always been an overrated coach: he took a good New England team that Bill Parcells built and made it into a mediocre one; while he revived a sputtering USC program, he did so in a weak conference, and there are questions as to how much of what he did, if any, was legitimate, given that he took off for the NFL as soon as sanctions were threatened; and he's now taken a mediocre Seahawks team, pushed it just enough to steal a weak division title, and replaced a QB who's now putting up solid numbers in Tennessee with a QB who wasn't any good in Minnesota. Seattle might be able to use Andrew Luck, but is there enough help to make him a worthwhile pick, and if not, will Carroll understand this and acquire that help? I'm afraid the answers are no and no.
  • The pain of the season-opening loss to the Redskins is fading quickly as the Giants have quickly moved to 3-1 (which should be 4-1 with Seattle coming up), but upon closer inspection, there isn't a lot to be excited about. New York has had the easiest schedule through four weeks by quite a bit, and their remaining schedule is the toughest in the league. Miami and Philadelphia at home are the only remaining games after the Seattle game that should pose little threat, and even then, there is the possibility that the Eagles will have worked out their problems by then. Combine that schedule with the strength in the North and South, and the Giants might miss the playoffs if they can't win the division. Their margin of error against Dallas, Washington, and Philadelphia will be quite small.
  • There are three things we can say about the Cardinals: losing their best defensive player hurt the defense significantly; getting a competent QB hasn't helped the passing game nearly as much as you'd think; playing in the NFC West means that the first two things may not matter. Beanie Wells is running like NCAA investigators are chasing him, and if that's enough to get Arizona past San Francisco twice, they could well be the second 7-9 team to snatch a playoff berth. A win over a struggling Minnesota team would be a good step toward getting back into playoff contention, and with a lot of winnable games on the Cardinals' schedule, they could well be meeting the 49ers around Thanksgiving for the West title.
  • Hello, Indian- er, New England. The Patriots seem to have borrowed a page from the Colts: build an unstoppable offense and it won't matter if your defense is terrible. The fact that they gave up 24 points to what looks like a bad Miami team is a major cause for concern: losing to Buffalo is, as of yet, not at all something to be ashamed of, but with the Jets, Dallas, and Pittsburgh coming up, if New England can't start playing defense now, they'll have, uh ... few problems with the rest of their schedule. It's actually pretty soft in terms of opposing offenses. The Giants, maybe the Eagles, the Bills again, and a bunch of nothing. So maybe Belichick was right again: if the teams you face generally don't have good offenses, why worry about defense? (The possibility of the Patriots giving up 50 points in a playoff game, though, has to be an enticing thought for the anti-Belichick crowd.)
  • So hey! Jason Campbell doesn't suck. Actually, he's ... 12th in ANY/A and 10th in DYAR, and the rushing offense is a solid 1st, so maybe Crazy Al did something right by accident. The defense isn't very good, but see Arizona for an explanation of that. Oakland looks to get battered by Houston's offense this week, but they have Cleveland and Kansas City at home prior to the bye, so this should be a 4-3 team heading into November. The Raiders will likely have to win the West to make the playoffs (FO gives them a 1-in-3 shot to win the division, but a 1-in-20 shot to get in as a wild card), so their games against San Diego, including the season finale in Oakland, could make the difference.
  • So I'm all like "it's not Kyle Orton" and as if to prove my point, the Broncos' defense gets pummeled, but then it's Green Bay's offense, and they do that a lot. Actually, it does look like the Denver offense is struggling, but it's more the offensive line than the QB. The Broncos are dead last in power success (20%), and while they don't get stuffed much, they don't get big gains either. Second-level and open-field yards, strengths of the team prior to Josh McDaniels completely destroying the offense, are now weaknesses. It may take John Fox a couple of years to rebuild the line, and by then, either Orton will be gone (to a city that will appreciate what he can do), or Tebow will be gone (to prove that he really can't be an NFL QB).
  • Did you know that Aaron Rodgers just set an NFL record that we just made up? Yes he did. (Devin Hester broke a record that people care about. What Rodgers did was just put numbers together in a certain way.) Sure, Rodgers has put up some awesome numbers, but he's played four bottom-half defenses so far (although New Orleans is in the top 16 pass defenses). Atlanta is a little better, but their pass defense isn't as good as the Saints. Rodgers may not face an adequate test until ... Detroit??? (Did I just say that? But it's true: the Lions are 4th in pass defense and 3rd overall.) The Packers are a virtual lock for the playoffs at this point; the only concern is what most teams fear, an injury to their starting QB. Don't forget that last year, the Packers scored 3 points against a Lions' defense much worse than this one ... and unlike Detroit, Green Bay has a backup who has been tested and found wanting. 
  • Tony Sparano has run out of time. It's become obvious that 2008 was a fluke and that the Dolphins simply can't compete week in and week out with the beasts in the East (and that group now includes Buffalo). The Wildcat, like every other formation in NFL history, is no longer new enough to trick any but the worst coordinators, so it relies on talent and execution, neither of which exists in excess in Miami; with Henne out, the Dolphins will be relying on a guy who couldn't wrest the starting job from Jimmy Clausen; and even if Moore can play well, that won't fix the huge problems on defense. This is not a good year to struggle against the pass, and the Dolphins have done that in spades. Fortunately, the AFC East plays the NFC East, so Miami gets the Rex Grossman Experience, a 50/50 shot at Bad Tony, and Mike Kafka (because we all know Vick isn't going to be healthy in December). Unfortunately, Dallas is one of six games Miami has against top-10 passing attacks ... 0-16 is unlikely, but I doubt Miami will win more than 4 games.
  • In another year, San Diego would be out in front of the West again, looking to cruise to a division title, especially with Kansas City crippled. This season, though, Antonio Gates isn't (and might never be) healthy, the defense isn't great, and while special teams have improved, they simply moved from atrocious to not good. Vincent Jackson is the only receiver doing anything; Mike Tolbert's helped out a bit, but someone has to catch some of the passes that Gates would, and that's not happening yet. The offense will have to score some points while the other units slowly improve ... actually, with Green Bay, Detroit, and Oakland (twice) on the schedule, the defense will have to improve significantly, especially with the Raiders right behind the Chargers. The non-East wild card (if there is one) may be coming from the South this season, so Norv needs to get these things fixed now.
  • The Jets' offense is terrible. Mark Sanchez, by virtue of playing in New York, is the most overrated QB in football, perhaps even in recent memory. He's incapable of running even a basic offense well, although in his defense, the offensive line hasn't played that well, and the running game is completely nonexistent. Defense and special teams will only get you so far. The Collinsworth remark above came from his comment on Sunday night that the Ravens should stop passing and just run the ball with the lead in the third quarter; if the Jets get a lead like that, even if it were a good idea in general, it wouldn't be feasible for them, because Shonn Greene just can't find any holes, and neither McKnight (hey look, another overrated USC running back!) nor Tomlinson (who is not LT, fools; that man played defense for the Giants) does much better. The Jets will play themselves out of a playoff spot, and once again, Rex Ryan will discover that his bluster cannot hide the glaring weaknesses on his team.
  • The Ravens need a win against Houston after their bye week. Everything is set up for them to dominate the North: Pittsburgh's done, Cincinnati isn't quite there (and of course Mike Brown could blow things up at any minute anyway), and Cleveland still isn't a threat. However, the Bengals and Steelers are right behind Baltimore, and one unexpected loss could make this a race again, even if the Ravens have quality that the others do not. We know the Jets' defense is good, but the way that the Ravens imploded against it was hard to understand ... Baltimore might match up well with the current New England team, but they might not draw the Patriots in the first round, and they need to learn to move the ball against a good defense.
  • Looking at the yardage, you might think Curtis Painter did a hell of a job against Tampa Bay, and in all fairness, the Colts did execute two good plays that kept them in the game ... but you have to keep in mind that Garçon's two catches made up more than half their passing yards. Painter was just 13 of 30 for the game, and while he didn't throw an interception, he did take 4 sacks, and he didn't really move the Colts well (4 of 13 on third downs). The offensive line, actually, hasn't been playing that poorly: they're doing pretty well on running plays, and their ASR is bottom-half, but not by much. Attribute a good bit of that to Collins' lack of familiarity with the offense and inability to get rid of the ball, which is something Painter seems to share. The left side of the line, in particular, has done really well on run blocking, so you might see some more stretch plays against Kansas City and Cincinnati to get the safeties to give Painter some room to throw. The Chiefs might be just what the Colts need ... but they do have to play well to beat Kansas City, as Minnesota just found out.
  • For a change, it's the Bucs' defense that isn't playing well. Josh Freeman is doing a good job with the passing game, special teams are really good ... but wow, Tampa Bay has been lousy against the pass. Two of their next four games are against New Orleans, and then they play Houston, Green Bay, Tennessee, and Carolina, so if Raheem Morris can't get those problems fixed, the Bucs could easily be 6-6 or worse when the stretch is complete.
After four weeks, total and offensive DVOA comprise over half of the variability you'll see in end-of-season DVOA. That doesn't mean that Buffalo, Tennessee, Oakland, and Detroit are all playoff locks, but it does mean that they probably aren't going to go 4-12 ... not this year, anyway.

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