The Scramble: Where They Shine

| January 20, 2012

The Scramble assignment this week was simple: explore the NFL’s Final Four through a PFF Signature Stats lens.

With our ever-growing list of unique statistics, it was a enlightening task to sift through and uncover those that shone most on these remaining squads. Each of our Scramblers adopted a team for the week, went to work, and what they’ll present below is a brief look at the Conference Championship teams like you’ll find nowhere else, built purely from our database.

It’s a little more number-heavy than usual and surely holds a different angle or two than standard coverage may bring. You can find all we discuss here and a ton more in our PFF Premium Stats.

 

 

New England Patriots

By Rodney Hart Jr.

The New England Patriots’ 45-10 victory over the Denver Broncos last week may have not been the largest margin of victory in postseason history, but it was their biggest postseason win in the Tom Brady-era. This is not only notable given the large sample of Brady-era postseason victories, but most importantly for the Patriots, it was a convincing way to get over their recent postseason malaise. To get past the Ravens–who embarrassed the Patriots in New England two years ago–the Patriots will be relying on the offense to continue rolling and their worst-ranked defense to put up more efforts like they produced against the Broncos.

There are a number of PFF Signature Stats that could be used to highlight the dominance of the Patriots’ offense, but the two I’ll focus on are Yards Per Route Run and Pass Blocking Efficiency:

 

Yards Per Route Run (YPRR)

Rather than just measuring a receiver by yards per reception or yards per target (each of which have drawbacks), we’ve utilized our snap counts to truly measure a receiver’s production by looking at their total yards by receiving routes run. The Patriots possess three of the league’s most productive receiving targets, but what makes them dangerous is that all three hold unique skill sets.

Wes Welker (+20.5) has been a headache of a matchup for virtually every defense he has faced this season. He ranked fourth in terms of YPRR after amassing the NFL’s second-most receiving yards (1569) on the seventh-most routes run (608). Welker was not only productive, but efficient. He’s tortured defenses, catching 72.3% of his targets (128-of-177), only holding himself back with the NFL’s second-worst 14 drops. Had it not been for those drops, his catch percentage would be an NFL-leading 80.2% (min of 40 targets).

Rob Gronkowski (+36.8) and Aaron Hernandez (+16.8) are proof of the power of the NFL draft. In only their sophomore seasons, the dynamic duo has become such an integral part of the Patriots’ offense, it’s hard to imagine the dire impact losing either one of them would pose. Among tight ends, Gronkowski ranks first and Hernandez sixth in YPRR. What makes them dangerous, is what makes them different. Gronkowski has the size and speed to be a mismatch for both defensive backs and linebackers, leading to NFL-best 20 receiving touchdowns. What Hernandez lacks in size when compared to Gronk, he makes up for in quickness and his ability to embarrass defenders–with 24 forced missed tackles, Hernandez leads all tight ends and receivers by five. For years to come, “The Boston TE Party” will be the reason for many defensive coordinators’ cardiologist visits.

 

Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE)

The PBE measure is one that takes pressure per play into account with a heavier weight placed on sacks allowed. Forgotten many places outside of PFF, solid offensive line play is one of the more unheralded reasons for team success. That is particularly the case for the Brady and the Patriots, who (when given the time) can puncture Titanic-sized holes in even the stiffest of defenses.

As a unit, the Patriots rank eighth in PBE with Top 10 marks in fewest sacks and hits allowed despite the third-highest number of passing plays (657). Leading the way was the Patriots’ veteran free agent acquisition Brian Waters (+21.7), who ranked fifth in PBE among all NFL guards, highlighted by only allowing two sacks on 644 pass block snaps. The Ravens have enough players to present a challenge to the Patriots’ offensive line, but if the line can keep Brady clean and pressure-free, Ed Reed and the defensive backfield better ensure their cleats are on tight.

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Baltimore Ravens

By Gordon McGuinness

After surviving at home in a defensive battle with the Houston Texans last week, the Baltimore Ravens march on to New England with a place in the Super Bowl on the line. The focus this week from all around seems to be on Joe Flacco and whether or not he can do enough to take the Ravens to Indianapolis. In all honesty, though, Flacco was efficient last week against a very tough Houston defense and the criticism aimed at him is a touch harsh. That being said, we all know that the Ravens are still built on the strength of their defense with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed & Co. still battling valiantly in a league that becomes more about offense by the minute.

It’s on the defensive side of the ball that the two main Signature Stats we’re going to take a look at come from; Pass Rushing Productivity and Slot Performance:

 

Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP)

Pass Rushing Productivity is one of my favorite Signature Stats here at PFF, so often people use sacks as the primary indicator for a pass rusher’s success. Sacks are obviously important, but PRP measures the pressure created on a per snap basis, giving you an insight into how often a pass rusher puts pressure on opposing Quarterbacks. The Ravens have three key players in this regard, the first won’t shock anyone, but the second two have been a nice surprise this season.

When lined up at Defensive End, Terrell Suggs (+38.2) rushes the passer 88.8% of the time and most of his pressure has come from the right side–10 sacks, four hits and 18 hurries. However, he’s actually been slightly more productive from the left, with a PRP Rating of 10.4 compared to an 8.9 from the right.

Many Ravens fans were ready to give up on Paul Kruger (+7.7) heading into this season, but the former second round draft pick has been a pleasant surprise this season, adding to the Ravens’ pass rush. He has been far more effective when rushing the passer from the right, with all six of his sacks this season coming from that side, helping him to a from-the-right PRP Rating of 12.0. From the left, he managed just two hits and six hurries from 103 pass rush snaps, bringing his overall PRP Rating down to 8.8.

I highlighted Pernell McPhee (+18.9) in the very first edition of The Scramble but it’s worth noting again here just how effective he has been. Among defensive tackles who have played at least 25% of their team’s defensive snaps, nobody has a higher PRP rating than McPhee, topping the list with a PRP 9.1.

 

Cornerback Slot Performance

I’m speculating here, but I’d by highly surprised if the Ravens don’t use Lardarius Webb (+14.4) to cover Wes Welker in the slot during the AFC Championship Game. On a defense full of superstars, Webb doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves, keep in mind that only Darrelle Revis has a higher coverage grade among cornerbacks this season and that Webb has yet to allow a touchdown reception.

Our Cornerback Slot Performance Signature Stat isolates how a corner performs when covering in the slot, giving you a look at who moves inside and how effective they are when they do. Webb has played 231 coverage snaps from the slot this season, allowing 18 receptions for 203 yards with 58 yards after the catch. That adds up to 0.88 yards per coverage snap and his success seems to have been noticed by opposing QBs, who target Webb just once every 7.7 snaps in the slot. That’s all going to be particularly important given how effective Welker has been, as highlighted by Rodney above.

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San Francisco 49ers

By Chris Benson

The NFC Conference Championship hasn’t been hyped-up the way the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens’ rematch of their 2009 Wild Card Round meeting has, but the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers will be having a rematch of their own after a closely-contested Week 10 game fell in the 49ers’ favor. In a rivalry dating back to the Joe Montana era, San Francisco leads the postseason series 4-3 after winning a thriller in the 2002 Playoffs, one of the all-time great comeback games.

This incarnation of the 49ers isn’t likely to make a 25-point comeback as they’re one of the few teams remaining in the league that relies primarily on its defense to win games. However, Alex Smith (+15.6) was able to do just enough to capitalize on five takeaways last week including hitting the all-important game-winning throw at the end, and this season he hasn’t done anything to give you the impression that he’ll throw the game away. With all the focus on San Francisco’s defense in mind, I chose one offensive and one defensive signature stat to highlight to emphasize that Smith has played his part in the 49ers’ remarkable improvement under Jim Harbough.

 

Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP)

As far as Signature Stats go, probably none are mentioned in PFF articles more than Pass Rushing Productivity and it’s a favorite of many PFF staffers for the reason Gordon mentioned above. It’s a stat that can teach you a lot about how and how well a team plays defense, and in the case of the 49ers, it’s a good indication of the talent the defense boasts at multiple positions. Starting up front, PFF poster-boy Justin Smith (+52.1) led all 3-4 defensive ends with a PRP Rating of 9.0 on the back of 69 total pressures–16 more than Darnell Dockett’s second-place total.

Aldon Smith (+39.1) never broke out of a situational role in his rookie year, but he dominated the 3-4 OLB position with a 15.4 PRP Rating, while no other qualifying rusher managed even a 14.0 rating rushing from both sides. Only 65 of Smith’s pass-rushing snaps came from the left during the regular season, but he recorded 16 pressures in that scenario, good for a 19.2 PRP Rating. Only time will tell if he is capable of maintaining a similar rate of production with more snaps and become an every-down player, but for the time being, Smith is the biggest threat to disrupt Eli Manning’s rhythm in the pocket.

Pressure from a 3-4 defensive end is icing on the cake and Smith has been more productive than any other 3-4 linebacker, so the 49ers rarely have to bother sending additional rushers. In fact, inside linebackers Patrick Willis (+25.7) and NaVorro Bowman (+31.9) rank 24th and 26th respectively among 31 qualifying players in the frequency of their pass rush, but they finished the regular season fourth and second in terms of PRP Rating as the inside pressure often caught teams off guard.

 

Accuracy Percentage

Alex Smith didn’t put up the kind of once-unfathomable numbers some of his peers did this season, but he may have the last laugh if he keeps performing well in the one Signature Stat he represents well. While some other quarterbacks have to air the ball out and make big plays to keep up with their opponent, Smith is simply asked to not turn the ball over and take what the defense gives him in hopes that his defense will stop his opponent more than the opponent can stop his offense over the long haul.

With those expectations, the most important statistics for a quarterback are turnover ratio and Accuracy Percentage (which is an adjusted completion percentage accounting for things like throwaways, drops, and spikes). Smith has excelled in both with a 17:5 TD:INT ratio and 73% Accuracy, fifth in the NFL … ahead of guys like Tom Brady. Smith has shown he can make good decisions all season and last week demonstrated the physical ability when it was needed most. Now the only question that remains is whether or not Smith will soon be able to replace the “Game Manager” label with “Super-Bowl Winner”.

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New York Giants

By Steve Palazzolo 

I will try to avoid the 2007 comparisons everyone is using for the New York Giants, but they are playing some very good football, and they’re doing it at the right time of the season. Coming off their upset win over the Green Bay Packers, they will travel to San Francisco to take on the 49ers in a rematch of their Week 10 battle. When asked to analyze a couple of our Signature Stats as they pertain to the Giants, the options were easy, as they rank at the top or bottom in a couple key categories.

It’s been a season-long discussion about quarterback Eli Manning’s (+23.3) standing among the best quarterbacks in the league, and it’s certainly been his best year. Of course, everyone first points to the gaudy passing yards and improved touchdown-to-interception ratio, but let’s take a look at how he has reached this point. It all starts with overcoming an offensive line that struggles in pass protection, while finding a diamond- in-the-rough wide receiver that he can trust.

 

Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) and Accuracy Percentage

Among the many great stats here at PFF, we are particularly proud of our efforts in analyzing offensive and defensive line play. Beyond the generic sacks totals, QB hits, and pressures are weighed heavily, and the Giants feature the worst pass-blocking offensive line with a Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) of 72.6. They’ve given up 28 sacks which ties them for “only” sixth worst in the league, but no offensive line has given up more QB hits and pressures. The 164 QB hits are 10 more than any team in the league and the 220 pressures are 15 more than the next closest competitor. With all of the bodies in his face, it’s even more of a tribute to the type of season Manning is having.

The beauty of our Signature Stats is that we can now connect the dots. Since we know Eli Manning is having his best season, and he’s playing behind the worst pass blocking offensive line in the league, he must be doing well while throwing the ball under pressure. Not only is he having a good season, he’s leading the league in Accuracy Percentage while pressured at 67.6%. In addition, Manning has only been sacked 11.5% of the time he has felt pressure, also best in the league. When we add it all up, it’s clear that Manning has outstanding pocket presence, while also showing great accuracy in the face of the oncoming rush.

 

Yards Per Route Run (YPRR)

To further connect the dots on Manning’s great season, he must be getting solid production from his wide receivers. Coming into the year, everyone knew Hakeem Nicks was a top threat and Mario Manningham a solid complement. There was some concern over replacing the departed Steve Smith who was one of Manning’s favorite targets, particularly out of the slot. Undrafted receiver Victor Cruz (+6.2) has assumed Smith’s role while adding another dimension to the offense. Cruz leads the league in Yards Per Route Run (YPRR) at 3.08 and he has been a weapon at every level of the defense. His smooth route running has made him a featured target in the short and intermediate passing game, and he’s shown deep speed as well by catching 14 balls beyond 20 yards, good for fifth in the league. Of Cruz’ 1532 yards, 1208 has come from the slot, yet another category that he sits atop.

As the Giants head to west to visit San Francisco and their ferocious pass rush, it’s safe to say that Manning will see some pressure, and when he does, he’ll be looking for Cruz.

 

 

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