Commentary

Wild Card Weekend: Numbers Crunching

Wild Card Weekend: Numbers Crunching

Originally Published: January 3, 2008
By Aaron Schatz | Football Outsiders.com

This week, Football Outsiders takes a look at the NFL wild-card playoffs and applies statistical analysis gathered during the regular season. Much of the analysis is based on DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), which takes every play during the season and compares it to the league average based on situation and opponent. DVOA and Football Outsiders' other advanced stats are explained here.

Redskins at Seahawks (Saturday), 4:30 p.m. ET

Seattle played the easiest schedule in the league according to average DVOA of all 16 opponents. Washington played the fourth-hardest schedule and the hardest slate of any team to make the playoffs.

Seattle had fewer penalties than any other team in the NFL (69, including declined and offsetting) and their opponents were called for nearly twice as many penalties (118). Washington was average in both categories.

Thirty-five percent of passes against the Redskins defense were thrown to the middle of the field, which led the NFL. However, it is unlikely the Seahawks will try to take advantage; the Seahawks threw just 19 percent of passes to the middle of the field, fewer than any other team in the NFC. That's strange since the Seahawks were so successful when they threw to the middle of the field (third in the NFL in DVOA).

Need a guide to how the shotgun formation has spread throughout the league? Hardcore Bill Walsh disciples like Mike Holmgren used to never, ever use it. Seattle did not run a single play from shotgun during its 2005 NFC Championship season. This year, the Seahawks used shotgun on eight percent of plays -- which was still less often than all 31 other teams. All but a handful of these plays came after Holmgren reduced his use of the running game at midseason. Seattle's DVOA from shotgun ranked fourth in the league and first in the NFC.

Washington was the best defense in the first half of games, but ranked 25th in the second half of games.
• More Redskins-Seahawks: Intel Report | Preview ESPN Video

Jaguars at Steelers (Saturday), 8 p.m. ET

In the first half of the year, Jacksonville ranked 13th on offense and 19th on defense. Since Week 10, the Jaguars are second on offense (behind New England) and sixth on defense.

Pittsburgh has been declining as much as Jacksonville has improved. At midseason, the Steelers ranked fourth on offense and second on defense. Since Week 10, the Steelers are 18th on offense and 14th on defense.

Fans think of Pittsburgh and Jacksonville as conservative, run-first offenses -- but Pittsburgh (23.1 percent) and Jacksonville (22.5 percent) were first and fourth in the percentage of deep passes attempted (longer than 15 yards through the air, no matter if complete or incomplete).

The general feeling among fans is that the Steelers' running game will suffer because of the loss of Willie Parker. This is true in the sense that it is good to have two backs with different skill sets. However, Najeh Davenport was far more effective than Parker this season. Davenport gained 4.7 yards per carry and his success rate of 52 percent ranked ninth among backs with at least 75 carries. Parker gained just 4.1 yards per carry and his success rate of 42 percent ranked 42nd.

The Steelers have major pass-blocking problems. Six teams gave up more sacks, but once you adjust for the fact that the Steelers run more than other teams, only San Francisco had a worse Adjusted Sack Rate. Things will be even worse now that the Steelers are on their third left tackle of the season, Trai Essex, with both Marvel Smith and Max Starks out for the year.

According to the Football Outsiders game charting project, the Steelers rushed five or more defenders more often than any other team, but they were only average when it came to rushing six or more defenders.
• More Jaguars-Steelers: Intel Report | Preview ESPN Video

Giants at Buccaneers (Sunday), 1 p.m. ET

New York's offense ranked 11th in DVOA through Week 9, but ranks just 23rd since Week 10 -- and yes, that includes last week's strong game against New England. Tampa Bay's defense ranked ninth through Week 9, but ranks third since Week 10.

The Giants' defense led the league in both sacks and Adjusted Sack Rate, and that strength matches one of the Tampa Bay's weaknesses. Tampa Bay's offense was just 24th in Adjusted Sack Rate.

Tampa Bay threw a higher percentage of passes to running backs than any other offense and had opponents throw a higher percentage of passes to running backs than any other defense. However, the Giants don't look like the right team to take advantage of either trend. The Giants averaged a league-low 4.2 yards per pass when throwing to running backs and were the only team to complete less than 60 percent of passes to running backs. On defense, the Giants were 28th in DVOA against passes to running backs.

The Giants have been among the league's most penalized teams for years, but that finally changed in 2007. The Giants had just 90 penalties (including declined and offsetting), which was 27th in the NFL. However, no team in the league had more penalties called on their opponents than the Giants did (133).

Tampa Bay, on the other hand, was called for fewer defensive penalties than any other team, but an above-average number of offensive and special teams penalties.

Remember the note above about Seattle and the shotgun formation? Jon Gruden was even more hardcore than Mike Holmgren when it came to not using the shotgun. The Bucs did not run a single play from shotgun during the 2004, 2005 or 2006 seasons. This past offseason, Gruden changed his mind about the shotgun. Tampa Bay ran 26 percent of plays from shotgun, which was around the NFL average this year. What's really strange is that it might not have helped. Tampa Bay's DVOA was actually higher with the quarterback under center. The Bucs ranked sixth in regular formations, but 17th in shotgun.
• More Giants-Buccaneers: Intel Report | Preview ESPN Video

Titans at Chargers (Sunday), 4:30 p.m. ET

Tennessee finished with the top defense of the year according to DVOA, but top defense doesn't necessarily mean great defense. Tennessee would not have ranked among the top three defenses of any other season going back to 1996. Overall, the Titans rank as just the 59th-best defense since 1996.

However, all that comes with a huge asterisk: a 320-pound asterisk named Albert Haynesworth. He was the most dominating defensive player in the league this year, but Haynesworth missed three games at midseason due to injury. If we remove those games, Tennessee's rating improves dramatically -- enough to rank as the 10th-best defense of the last dozen years, ahead of such teams as the 2003 Patriots and 2006 Bears.

The Titans have the best defense in the league against tight ends; the defense ranks third against running backs used in the passing game. Of course, this didn't stop Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson from each picking up a receiving touchdown in the first meeting of these teams.

There is one important place the Tennessee defense has problems: It can't stop the run on third down. The Titans defense was top-10 on first and second down, but only Arizona was worse against the run on third down. San Diego's offense was the second-best in the league running on third down, behind only Pittsburgh.

On the other side of the field, San Diego's defense was average at midseason but has been the best defense in the league since Week 10, when cornerback Antonio Cromartie finally moved into the starting lineup.

However, the San Diego defense is heavily weighted towards stopping the pass. For the season, it ranks second against the pass and 19th against the run. That could be an issue since the Titans offense is built around the ground game. The Titans were one of three teams to run on more than half of all plays (the others were Minnesota and Pittsburgh).

Tennessee has been far better than San Diego in "late and close" situations (second half or overtime with the score within a touchdown). In these situations, the Titans rank eighth on offense and second on defense. The Chargers rank 25th on offense and 24th on defense.

San Diego finished fourth in the Football Outsiders special teams rankings, and the Chargers are above-average in every phase of special teams. Titans kicker Rob Bironas had a better season than any other kicker in the league: He was worth 8.7 points over average on field goals, first in the league, and 6.0 points over average on kickoffs, which ranked third. However, the Titans are poor in every other area of special teams.
• More Titans-Chargers: Intel Report | Preview ESPN Video

Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of Pro Football Prospectus 2007 and 2008.