With six new quarterbacks starting in Sunday's 12 games (Washington's John Beck, Seattle's Charlie Whitehurst, Oakland's Kyle Boller, Minnesota's Christian Ponder, St. Louis' A.J. Feeley, and some guy named Tim Tebow for the Denver Broncos), it's a little tougher to base any football predictions — whether we're talking reality or fantasy — on the past, Still, there are enough trends and tendencies to give us some pretty good ideas about what might happen today, and where the best potential matchups lie. Here are some interesting numbers for the Sunday early games.
San Diego Chargers at New York Jets
The Jets have been known for their solid front seven through the Rex Ryan era, but that's a thing of the past in 2011 — especially when it comes to run defense on the outside. The Jets are 30th in the league in yards per carry allowed to left end (8.72 YPC on 25 plays), and 20th to right end (5.73 YPC on 15 plays). The Chargers run up the middle most of the time, but they're very effective to the left edge, and it's something they should try and exploit today — with 5.73 yards per carry to that side, Ryan Mathews could have a bounty if he's bounding outside.
Have you been watching the Jets' stodgy offense and wondering why it doesn't break out and think outside the box more? Perhaps when offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer should do more often is to think away from center. According to Football Outsiders' DVOA per-play metric (which is explained here),the Jets are the second-most efficient team in the league when they're in the shotgun formation … and the NFL's worst under center. And if you're not into advanced metrics, let's make this really simple — the Jets average 6.9 yards per play in the 'gun, and 4.0 yards per play when they're not. And to make that matchup even more favorable, the Chargers are giving up 6.6 yards on defense against shotgun sets, and 5.3 per play against teams under center. Follow the trends, Schotty!
Chicago Bears "at" Tampa Bay Buccaneers (in London)Across the pond, yes, but the Bears actually started their different protection concepts last week against the Minnesota Vikings. In their first three plays from scrimmage, Chicago went with two tight ends, two tight ends, and a tight end-fullback set. Completed pass, completed pass, touchdown. Jay Cutler may have had his best and most comfortable day in the pocket as a Chicago Bear, and the protection had a lot to do with it. And since shotgun seems to be the theme of the day, the Bears might want to add more of it to add to Cutler's protection, especially when Mike Martz wants to flare his playmakers out and leave Cutler with fewer blockers. The Bears have gone shotgun 16 percent of the time this year, lowest in the league.
One thing Cutler won't have to worry about is facing a defense with a rep for quarterback takedowns. The Bucs' defense currently ranks 28th in FO's Adjusted Sack Rate metric (which gives sacks per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent), and they only have 10 quarterback takedowns. The Bucs do have an interesting advantage in this game if their running backs can get to the second level — no team is worse than the Bears when it comes to stopping backs five and 10 yards downfield, according to FO's Adjusted Line Yards stats.
Washington Redskins at Carolina PanthersWe're not sure what to expect from John Beck, but we know what we're going to see from Carolina's pass defense — they're easily exposed to short stuff on both sides of the field. On 47 plays to the short left, Carolina has allowed a 72% completion rate (29th in the league) and 8.09 yards per play (25th). To the right side, 56 pass plays have yielded a 70% completion rate (28th in the league), and 7.14 yards per play (28th). Beck is a short thrower by nature and by force, but that could actually be an advantage today. The Panthers are much better deep left and deep right, which indicates that the plan is to give up the short stuff and avoid the deep threat. Since Beck isn't a deep threat at all, it will be interesting to see if the Panthers change their coverage concepts.
Okay, so people want to get involved in Cam Newton's won-loss record … whatever. Let's put this out there in the simplest way possible. In 2010, the Panthers had one of the most pathetic offenses of the modern era. In 2011? Carolina ranks 32nd in defensive DVOA and 32nd in special teams DVOA. And eighth in offensive DVOA. In other words, the Panthers are still a really good UFL team in every category but the categories Cam Newton changed and improved. Any questions?.
Atlanta Falcons at Detroit Lions
This week, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz compared Atlanta's front four to his own from a run-stopping perspective. And since Detroit's front four is the best in the game, that's pretty high praise. One way in which Schwartz will see this with his depleted running back rotation is in Atlanta's ability to create negative plays. The Falcons have stopped opposing backs for zero or negative yardage on 24 percent of the plays against them, fourth-best in the league. However, the Falcons' defense is not so tight when it comes to situational stops — they rank 28th in what FO calls "Power Success", which details defensive effectiveness against runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Atlanta is allowing 80 percent success on such plays, ranking them among the NFL's worst.
Remember those shotgun numbers we discussed before? Atlanta might want to. The Lions run 71 percent shotgun, by far the most in the NFL, and they're very good at it, with 6.2 yards per play. The Falcons' defense against the 'gun? Not so much. They're allowing 7.7 yards per play against quarterbacks out from center, as opposed to 5.3 against quarterbacks under center. (Note: these shotgun numbers are for both run and pass plays).
Seattle Seahawks at Cleveland Browns
With Peyton Hillis out for this game, the Browns will struggle even more to make any headway against Seattle's outstanding run defense. The Seahawks rank third in Adjusted Line Yards, second in Power Success, and second in percentage of negative run plays caused. The Browns have averaged 3.38 running back yards per play this season — only the Jets and Titans are worse.
Denver Broncos at Miami Dolphins
Not much to say about quarterbacks Matt Moore and Tim Tebow from a passing perspective, but it's important to note that Tebow has been the Broncos' best red zone rushing weapon by far since he came into the NFL. Since the start of the 2010 season, Denver has eight rushing touchdowns from its running backs ... and seven rushing touchdowns from its former backup quarterback.
Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans
Matt Hasselbeck's rebirth is for real — the former Seahawks quarterback is having one of his best years in the places where it really counts. He's the NFL's most efficient quarterback in third-down plays when 3-7 yards to go, converting 73.7 percent of opportunities. He's also got the league's best completion percentage on plays inside the opponents' 20-yard line — 17 of 23 for a 73.9% completion rate. That could be bad news for a Houston defense that's pretty average on the red zone against the pass (17th in DVOA), and very problematic on third-and-short (28th in DVOA).