After a week off to wrap up some end-of-season chores, the Scramble returns to take on another assignment. This time around we’ve directed our efforts toward the upcoming Divisional Round games and took some time to reduce each team to a simple set of strengths and weaknesses (with aid from PFF’s lead analyst, Ben Stockwell). Given how those weak points are magnified come this time of year, our focus landed squarely there.
So much has been floated about Tim Tebow’s un-quarterback-like qualities and how they’ll eventually sting the surprising Broncos, there was no need for us to pursue that any further. Likewise, San Francisco’s red zone issues were spelled-out perfectly in Sam Monson’s article on Thursday, so we took another tack.
Each team that remains now is here for a reason, but none of them are perfectly dominant. The NFL’s “Elite Eight” (if you will) for this season are flawed and here you’ll see our four Scramblers find fragile points that could bring down a pair of favorites or hold down a couple of underdogs.
Houston: Limited by Yates
By Rodney Hart Jr.
It may seem unfair to Texans fans to list T.J. Yates (-2.2 overall) as a weakness in a world where Tim Tebow (-7.1 overall) has been hailed by many as the reason the Broncos made it to the playoffs despite his glaring deficiencies. Yes, in light of season-ending injuries to both Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, it might be more appropriate to commend Yates for not only helping the Texans clinch their franchise’s first postseason berth, but win their first postseason game.
After outshining fellow rookie Andy Dalton in last week’s 31-10 victory, he now moves on to the more formidable, veteran-laden Baltimore Ravens. Consider that he will be trying lead the Texans’ offense past a Ravens defense with guys like Ray Lewis, who’s been playing linebacker for Baltimore since Yates was in middle school. To this point, there is nothing about his play to suggest he can’t do it, but more importantly there is nothing about his play that suggests he can either.
To date in his very brief career, Yates has had moments that suggest eventually he could be a player that causes a lot of head scratching when trying to figure out why he wasn’t drafted earlier than the fifth-round. I stress, eventually. After winning the first two games he started, the second of which was his best (+1.2) and clinched a postseason berth with a critical touchdown pass, he started to look a little more like a mistake-prone rookie then the savvy game-manager he appeared in his first few games.
One such game was his (-3.1) performance against Carolina in Week 15. After the Panthers jumped out to an early lead, Yates was forced to be less reliant on play action, and without the threat of the run he finished 9-of-18 passing after starting 10-of-12–that’s a drop-off from 83% completion to 50%. Additionally, Yates threw two interceptions to end the game, the most egregious being one he threw in the end zone late in the fourth quarter that sealed the loss. He may be ready to manage games, but if the Texans fall to an early deficit, their future will be in a precarious position.
Another concerning factor is Yates’ performance under pressure. In total, Yates has dropped back to pass 178 times. Below are his stats when under no pressure compared to when he is challenged by a rush:
|Pressure||Dropbacks||Completion %||Touchdowns||QB Rating||PFF Grade|
Among the 47 quarterbacks who have played at least 100 snaps this season, Yates’ 17 sacks on 57 plays under pressure (31.3%) is the second-highest rate, topped only by Caleb Hanie’s (34.5%). Even in last week’s 31-10 victory over the Bengals, on eight plays under pressure, Yates took two sacks and completed just two passes. Fortunately for the Texans, it was only eight plays.
The bad news this week is that the Ravens are a team capable of forcing Yates into facing either one or both of these issues. Collectively, the Ravens are PFF’s highest-rated run defense team at (+159.6) led by the likes of Terrell Suggs (+22.1 run grade) and Ray Lewis (+17.7 run grade) among a list of many others. If they’re capable of limiting Arian Foster (+19.7) and the Houston O-line, Yates won’t have the play-action threat to help open up his receiving options.
Given his struggles against the Panthers’ pass defense (-28.5) a few weeks ago, it could be ugly against a stingy Ravens pass D (+30.9). Oh yeah, the Ravens also have a few pass rushers like Suggs (+10.3 pass rush grade) and Pernell McPhee (+17.1) who will likely put Yates’ pocket presence to the test. Unless he proves better against the rush then he’s shown so far, the Yates fairy tale
New Orleans: A Question of Pressure
By Gordon McGuinness
While everyone is getting caught up in the matchup between the prolific New Orleans Saints offense and the San Francisco 49ers’ stingy defense, it’s worth pointing out that the flip side is just as interesting because of some serious flaws in the New Orleans defense. Don’t forget that while the Saints have put up at least 42 points in each of the last four games, they only put up 22 in their last game outside of the comforts of a dome and have averaged 25.8 points per game in the five games played without a roof this year. It’s easy to look at this one and wonder if the 49ers can keep up with the Saints’ offense, but if they can hold New Orleans to 25 points, suddenly they don’t need to match what Drew Brees & Co. have accomplished recently.
How much have the Saints struggled to get pressure on opposing Quarterbacks this season? Their -71.1 cumulative grade in that regard is the lowest in the league by some distance and if you dig into the numbers, it’s not hard to see why. Combined, the Saints entire defense has registered 34 sacks, 52 hits and 165 pressures with only Will Smith (+1.5), Junior Galette (+5.0), and Malcolm Jenkins (+0.7) having positive grades as pass rushers.
The production from the starting defensive line is nothing short of frightening; Sedrick Ellis (-2.7) has rushed the passer 491 times this season, resulting in just two sacks, two hits and 17 pressures. That averages out to Ellis getting pressure on the opposing QB just 4.27% of the time. Rookie defensive end Cameron Jordan (-6.3) has rushed the passer 342 times, with just a single sack, five hits and 18 pressures to show for it, meaning he gets pressure on just 7.01% of those rushes. It’s just not enough pressure coming from the base defense, and when that happens you’re likely to see more blitzes.
It’s safe to say the Saints blitz a lot, that’s perhaps forced by the lack of pass rush from their defensive line but Gregg Williams is known to like to blitz regardless. How often do they blitz? Since Week 9 they have blitzed on 46.25% of pass plays. There’s two problems with that though, firstly, blitzing leaves an already vulnerable pass defense stretched even further, but most importantly, the linebackers haven’t managed to generate pressure as blitzers. Scott Shanle (-12.9 pass rush grade) has been sent after the QB 183 times resulting in a sack and nine pressures, add that all up and he gets pressure on a mere 5.46% of his pass rushes. Jonathan Vilma (-6.5)? 4.68% Jonathan Casillas (-5.1) is the best of a bad bunch, getting pressure on 13.29% of his rushes, but whatever way you slice it, the Saints have a very serious problem getting pressure this season. That plays right into the hands of the 49ers.
Now I’m not trying to make Alex Smith (+15.1) out to be something he’s not, but what he has accomplished this season has been key to the 49ers’ success. His five interceptions highlight the fact that he just doesn’t make mistakes often while throwing for 3,144 and 17 touchdowns. The key to Smith’s success is quite simple, he’s a completely different quarterback when under pressure than when he’s not. Under pressure, he completes just 41.6% of his passes with a PFF grade of -1.5. When he’s kept clean, his completion percentage jumps to 70.1% with a PFF grade of +23.1. It should be pretty obvious where I’m going with this, but if the Saints continue to blitz but don’t get pressure on Smith, there will be plenty of opportunities for him to lead the 49ers to 25-30 points on Saturday. If the 49ers’ vaunted defense can force turnovers, then that just might be enough to end the Saints’ season in San Francisco.
New England: Defensive Dilemma
By Chris Benson
Saturday’s matchup between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots has been, perhaps, the most highly-anticipated game in the Divisional Round thanks to the national sensation that is Tebowmania and the presence of Tom Brady on the other sideline. The quarterbacks have been discussed so thoroughly that other storylines concerning either team have been neglected despite being equally relevant, including the potential of the Patriots’ defense to cost the team a shot at the Super Bowl.
If the Patriots do go on to reach the league’s title game, there’s a strong chance they’ll be facing a prolific passing attack—be it New Orleans or Green Bay—so, dramatically reducing the 15 yards per attempt Tim Tebow averaged last week is a goal they need to be able to achieve if they’re to contend with those vaunted passing offenses in the future. Allowing 294 passing yards per game during the regular season, the Patriots’ 31st-ranked defense (in terms of yardage allowed) employed a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy (probably not deliberately, of course) that obviously worked well enough to help them to the postseason, but that sort of strategy isn’t likely to win three consecutive playoff games. Anyway, before the Patriots can think of that lofty goal, they need to take care of business on Saturday.
The Patriots already dealt with the Broncos in Denver in Week 15, but their second meeting in a month could play out differently even if the results wind up the same. Much publicity has been given to Tebow’s success throwing deep (here defined as pass attempts targeted 20+ yards downfield) against the Steelers last week (4-of-6 for 179 yards) and it’s unlikely that the Patriots will replicate Pittsburgh’s defensive game plan, particularly leaving corners in man coverage with no deep safety help. Back in Week 15, Tebow went deep only three times despite playing catch-up during the second half and completed only one of those, so even the Patriots’ approach back then may not work now.
So how will the Patriots best minimize the negative impact of their major weakness? Because of all the fuss made about the Steelers selling out against the run, I re-watched the Week 15 game and charted out how productive the Denver offense was against various defensive looks. The intent was to find out whether the numbers indicate that the Broncos found more success when the Patriots were playing the run, closer to the line of scrimmage, or when the secondary laid off and treated the Broncos as a legitimate passing threat. All plays were included, so the averages factor all rushing, passing, and penalty yardage accumulated by the Denver offense in six broadly defined situations. For our purposes here, “8 in the box” is a safety within 8 yards in a base defense while a free safety is beyond 8 yards at the snap.
|Patriots D vs. Broncos O||1-2 Rec, 8 in Box||1-2 Rec, GL Def||1-2 Rec, No S in Box||3+ Rec, 1 FS||3+ Rec, No FS||3+ Rec, 2 FS|
|Number of Plays||16||1||5||17||3||18|
|Number of Yards||113||2||71||123||1||83|
|Yards Per Play||7.1||2||14.2||7.2||0.33||4.6|
Largely, what we learn from this is that Patriots didn’t respect Denver’s passing game all that much, as you’d have likely guessed. The Broncos lined up with only two receivers on 22 plays and New England opted most often to play the run aggressively, keeping James Ihedigbo (-6.5) out of the proverbial box only five times. Four of those five plays were run calls—three of which went for 10 or more yards. New England will have to devote a safety to the box when faced with this alignment, which could, of course, put them where Denver wants them, opening up deep passing opportunities. Tebow was 4-of-6 for 75 yards and a sack within those 16 plays in the first category; the Patriots have to be ready to react to play-action and the play of their safeties will be key.
Among the three categories that yielded significant data, the Patriots’ defense performed best when the play looked like it would be a pass (3+ receivers on field) and their safeties played beyond eight yards, although that average is helped by a 28-yard sack. I’d expect there to be many fewer plays in the fourth category (a single deep safety) and more in the sixth (a pair of deep safeties) when Denver spreads their offense out in this game, but either way, the Patriots’ defense must find a way to stay aggressive against the Broncos’ run game without sacrificing discipline on those deep passes that did Pittsburgh in.
Perhaps the Patriots could overcome and win the Super Bowl in spite of a porous defense, but I’d be willing to bet Bill Belichick would rather not find out and instead get his defense playing better in time for a shot at his fourth Lombardi Trophy.
New York Giants: Covering the Middle
By Steve Palazzolo
The storyline is coming together nicely for the New York Giants. They have a hot quarterback, a ferocious pass rush, and they’re carrying some late season momentum into the playoffs. It sounds eerily similar to their 2007 Super Bowl run that started as an underdog Wild Card team. This year, the road through the NFC will not be an easy one, and as usual during playoff time, team weaknesses tend to get exposed. As always, a good pass rush can make up for poor coverage on the back end, but if the Giants do not get pressure from their front four, they may struggle to cover the middle of the field against the NFC heavyweights.
While free safety Kenny Phillips (+5.6 coverage) and cornerback Corey Webster (+3.5 coverage) have had strong years, no other player in the back seven has graded positively, save for linebacker Spencer Paysinger’s +1.3 grade on only 50 snaps. Linebackers and safeties have not covered well all season and we can look at the Giants’ previous three games against the remaining NFC playoff teams to see it play out:
|Week 10 at San Francisco 49ers|
Unfortunately for the 49ers, TE Delanie Walker is out for the season, but he had his way with the Giants in their Week 10 matchup. He was the 49ers’ leading receiver on the day while fellow TE Vernon Davis’ touchdown went for 31 yards, the longest pass play of the game.
|Week 12 at New Orleans Saints|
|Marques Colston||WR (12 in Slot)||3||6||78||0||50 yarder from slot|
|Lance Moore||WR (15 in Slot)||5||7||54||2||Both TDs from slot|
Against the Saints, the tight ends proved to be a tough cover again for the Giants as Jimmy Graham had two touchdowns. The Saints move their offensive personnel around as much as any team in the league, so both Marques Colston and Lance Moore saw a number of snaps in the slot. It was from there that Colston had the Saints’ longest pass play of the game, going for 50 yards, while both of Lance Moore’s touchdowns also came from the slot.
|Week 13 vs. Green Bay Packers|
|Jermichael Finley||TE||6||11||87||1||3 dropped passes|
|Greg Jennings||WR (42 Slot)||7||13||94||1|
TE Jermichael Finley was running wide open against the Giants’ defense the entire game, and if it wasn’t for three dropped passes, it may have been a much easier win for the Packers. WR Greg Jennings dominated his matchup with CB Aaron Ross who surrendered six of his seven receptions while following him to the slot in multiple receiver packages.
With the Giants headed to Green Bay this weekend, it’s time to figure out who will slow down Finley, Jennings, and the other wide receivers and tight ends looking to exploit the middle of the field. Our second-lowest rated coverage safety, Antrel Rolle (-12.0), will most likely be covering the slot, and he appears to be mismatched against the likes of Jennings. As mentioned, Ross tried his hand, but he has moved back to playing more on the outside. SS Deon Grant provides another average option when the Giants go to their “big nickel” package. As always, it may take another strong pass rushing effort to mask these deficiencies.
Despite the issues in the back seven, there are a few signs of hope for the Giants. First, linebacker Michael Boley missed significant time in the aforementioned matchups, including the entire game against the Saints. He is back in full swing, not missing a snap since Week 14. Though he’s fairly average in coverage, he brings three-down stability to the linebacker corps. Second, nickel linebacker Jacquian Williams has come on strong in recent weeks with four straight positive coverage grades. Third, for all the struggles Rolle has had this season, he has shown signs of life in recent weeks. His best game in coverage was the last game of the regular season against the Cowboys and he followed that up last week with another solid game. If Rolle continues his strong play, he may prove to be the key in the Giants’ upset bid against the Packers this weekend.
When and if the story of the underdog Giants is told, it most certainly will start and finish with QB Eli Manning and one of the league’s best pass rushes led by DE Jason Pierre-Paul. But beneath the surface, we’ll know that if the Giants do continue their hot streak through the playoffs, it will be because of improved coverage from the linebackers and safeties against some of the NFL’s best tight ends and slot receivers. However, if the season-long trend continues, the Giants will have a difficult time getting past the Divisional Round.