Stats & Info: D-Gaps

D-Gaps: Beware of Woodley

February, 4, 2011
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With Troy Polamalu earning the league’s Defensive Player of the Year Award on Monday and Clay Matthews finishing a close second, the defensive player who has had arguably the greatest start to a postseason career in NFL history has slipped under the radar in the leadup to Super Bowl XLV. He may not have earned any hardware over the past week (and the merits of his hair style have yet to be debated) but LaMarr Woodley is primed to have a big impact Sunday.

LaMarr Woodley
Woodley
Woodley set an NFL record in the AFC Championship by recording his 10th career playoff sack in just his sixth postseason game. Since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, he’s the first player to reach 10 sacks in fewer than seven career playoff games. Woodley passed Super Bowl XX MVP Richard Dent, who registered his 10th playoff sack in his seventh postseason game.

With a sack Sunday, Woodley will earn another spot in the NFL record book. He is currently tied with Mark Gastineau for the most consecutive postseason games with at least one full sack, with six. Gastineau's streak started in the 1982 wild card playoffs and stretched all the way to the 1986 Divisional Playoffs, where he registered 1.5 sacks in a loss to the Cleveland Browns.

Can Packers keep Big Ben in the pocket?
It’s tough to find a weakness in the Packers' fifth-ranked pass defense, but Green Bay was average at best when it allowed quarterbacks to escape the pocket during the regular season.

The Packers allowed 7.3 yards per pass attempt to quarterbacks outside the pocket during the regular season, which ranked 26th in the NFL.

That number dropped to 6.4 yards per attempt when the Packers were able to keep quarterbacks between the tackles, second best in the league.

Polamalu’s trophy a good omen for Steelers
Troy Polamalu
Polamalu
Throughout the season, this column has aimed to address the giant gap between the volume of offensive and defensive analysis and statistics. This gap is all the more perplexing when you consider that the NFL’s best teams are often the ones that allow the fewest points as opposed to the ones that score the most (as evidenced this season by four of the league’s top six scoring defenses reaching the conference title games and numbers one and two facing off in the Super Bowl).

Therefore, what better way to end the 2010 season than by pointing out that teams featuring the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, as the Steelers will on Sunday, are 11-1 in Super Bowls. The only Defensive Player of the Year to lose in the Super Bowl the same season he was honored was Bruce Smith, who was a Scott Norwood field goal away from winning Super Bowl XXV with the Bills following the 1990 season.

The reigning Offensive Player of the Year is just 3-9 in the Super Bowl. Since Marshall Faulk led the Rams to a win in Super Bowl XXXIV following the 1999 season, every Offensive Player of the Year to play in the league’s biggest game has come up empty: Faulk in Super Bowl XXXVI, Shaun Alexander in Super Bowl XL and Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII.

D-Gaps: defense may take backseat to QBs

January, 28, 2011
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As you’ve read here and elsewhere, Super Bowl XLV will match the league’s top two scoring defenses for just the fourth time and first since Super Bowl XVII (after the 1982 strike-shortened season).

The Green Bay Packers allowed 15.0 points per game during the regular season, the fewest since their Super Bowl season of 1996. The only team to allow fewer was the Pittsburgh Steelers (14.5), who now have led the NFL in scoring defense three times in the past seven seasons.

However, a look back at the last time these two teams played offers a note of caution to all those predicting a low-scoring game. Combining the regular season and playoffs, there have been more than 10,000 games played during the Super Bowl era (since 1966). In exactly one of them, opposing quarterbacks threw for at least 375 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. That was on December 20, 2009, as the Steelers stunned the visiting Packers 37-36 when Ben Roethlisberger found Mike Wallace in the end zone from 19 yards out on the game’s final play.

“Big Ben” finished the game with 503 passing yards, the 10th-highest single-game total in league history. Aaron Rodgers wasn’t bad either, piling up 383 yards to go with his three scores. While the second Roethlisberger-Rodgers matchup isn’t likely to produce the same type of offensive fireworks, it could give us a much higher-scoring Super Bowl than many are predicting.

Rookie sends Packers to Dallas
In a defensive backfield that includes 2009 Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson and Pro Bowler Tramon Williams, an undrafted rookie made the plays that clinched Green Bay’s fifth Super Bowl trip.

Sam Shields
Shields
In the NFC Championship Game against the Chicago Bears, Sam Shields registered a sack, a forced fumble and a pair of interceptions, including the game-icing pick deep in Packers territory with less than a minute remaining. Shields is the first player with a sack, forced fumble and two interceptions in a postseason game since sacks became an official statistic in 1982. Over the past 10 years, only two other players have posted that stat line in a regular-season game: Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Eric Warfield in Week 8 of 2003, and Woodson in Week 12 of 2009.

Steelers goal-line stand helped seal win
Is the criticism the New York Jets have faced for choosing to plunge into the middle of the league’s best run defense on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the AFC Championship Game appropriate?

During the regular season, Pittsburgh allowed opponents to convert on 75 percent (15-of-20) of running plays on third- and fourth-and-1, better than just seven NFL teams. On passing plays in those situations (including sacks), Steelers opponents converted only 54.5 percent (6-of-11) of the time, the 14th-lowest rate allowed by any defense.

Shonn Greene
Greene
So while the Jets' decision to keep the ball on the ground seems sound, they may have had the wrong player in the backfield. Over the past two seasons (including playoffs), Shonn Greene has moved the chains on 13 of 15 carries in third- and fourth-and-1 situations, the third-highest conversion rate (86.7 percent) among all running backs (minimum 10 carries). LaDainian Tomlinson, who was stoned at the goal line, has a conversion rate of 64.3 percent on such carries (9-of-14).

D-Gaps: Jets stand tall on 3rd-and-short

January, 13, 2011
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Our weekly look at stats and notes from the "other" side of the ball.

In the aftermath of the New York Jets’ wild card win, much of the praise has centered around a punishing Jets rushing attack and Mark Sanchez’s skill in leading the drive for the game-winning field goal.

While the Jets offense was great in certain areas on Saturday, the play of their defense, particularly in short-yardage situations, is the primary reason they advanced to the Divisional Playoffs for a second consecutive season.

The Indianapolis Colts converted just twice on their six third-and-one opportunities, with each of their first three possessions ending after they were unable to move the chains in a third-and-one situation. Indianapolis’ results in short-yardage situations were among the worst in a single game in quite some time.

The Colts are the first team to fail to convert on third-and-one four times in a playoff game in the last 10 seasons. During the entire 2010 regular season, a team failed to convert a third-and-one four or more times in a game on just four occasions.

Prior to Saturday, it had been more than eight years since the Colts performed so poorly in third-and-one situations, going 0-4 against the Cleveland Browns in Week 15 of 2002.

The Jets have made a habit of excelling in short-yardage situations under Rex Ryan. Since 2009, only four teams have allowed third-or fourth-and-one conversions at a rate lower than the Jets’ 63.3 percent.

New York’s defense faced just one third-and-one situation in the postseason last year, stoning Peyton Manning on third-and-goal in the second quarter of last year’s AFC Championship.

Matthews will haunt Eagles in offseason
Clay Matthews
Matthews
Just months after shutting down the Philadelphia Eagles offense in a season-opening win (seven tackles, three sacks, game-sealing stop on a late fourth-and-one), Clay Matthews was every bit as impressive in the Green Bay Packers' wild-card win Sunday.

The line in the box score wasn’t quite as full (three tackles, one sack), but, as usual, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

The Packers went to extremes to put pressure on Michael Vick, sending five or more rushers after the quarterback 18 times on passing plays. Matthews dropped into coverage on half of those plays, and Vick completed six of nine passes for 116 yards when the Packers blitzed but didn’t send Matthews.

Vick was far less effective when Matthews was part of the Packers blitz, hitting on just one of his five passes, being sacked twice, and scrambling twice for a total of two yards.

Hali puts finishing touch on fantastic 2010
Tambi Hali
Hali
He’ll be watching the rest of the postseason, but Tamba Hali deserves credit for putting the finishing touches on a breakout season.

A week after registering 2.5; sacks to finish the regular season with an AFC-best 14.5;, Hali picked up two more against the Baltimore Ravens.

On his first, Hali forced a fumble from Joe Flacco and recovered it himself, setting up the Chiefs' only touchdown two plays later. Hali is the first player with a pair of sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in a playoff game since Warren Sapp did it for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1997 Divisional Playoffs.

D-Gaps: Gameplans for Jets and Packers

January, 7, 2011
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Our weekly look at stats and notes from the "other" side of the ball.

The New York Jets allowed a league-low eight passing touchdowns last season, thanks to an aggressive defense that blitzed more often than any other team.

That season, the Jets rushed five or more defenders on 52.4 percent of opponents’ dropbacks, the highest percentage in the league and the only instance since 2008 in which a defense had a single-season percentage over 50. Opposing quarterbacks threw only two touchdown passes in 265 attempts when the Jets brought added pass pressure.

This season, the Jets allowed 24 passing touchdowns, including 16 to targets guarded by a single defender, and Peyton Manning may look somewhere specific when he needs a score. Antonio Cromartie was the defender on seven pass touchdowns this season, the highest of any Jets defender, and six of the seven were against single man-coverage.

To combat those perimeter struggles, the Jets slowed their rate of pressure as the season progressed, rushing five or more defenders 47.9 percent of the time in their first eight games (41.1 percent over their final eight games).

Peyton Manning
Manning
Despite the aforementioned inconsistency, the Jets will need to dial things up this weekend against the Indianapolis Colts. Facing four or fewer pass rushers this season, Peyton Manning recorded a higher passer rating (93.2 to 87.6) and completion percentage (68.3 to 59.5), and was sacked at a lower rate (88.0 dropbacks per sack to 16.8 dropbacks per sack) than when opponents pressured him with five or more.

Let's see if the Jets dial up a gameplan similar to the one used in last year’s dramatic playoff run. The Jets sent five or more defenders on 63.4 percent of opponents’ dropbacks during the 2009 postseason, the highest rate among any playoff participant since 2008.

PACKERS PICK THEIR POISON
Regardless of how many pass rushers the Green Bay Packers send, they‘ve had success blitzing with defensive backs this season. Green Bay allowed the second-lowest opponents’ passer rating in the league when blitzing a member of the secondary this season.

Michael Vick
Vick
When facing pass pressure this season from defensive backs, Michael Vick completed less than half of his passes, averaging 7.3 yards per attempt. When the pass rush didn’t include the secondary, Vick completed almost 66 percent of his passes for 8.3 yards per attempt.

However, the Packers are likely aware that pursuing Vick this way is a risky position. Vick was sacked 13 times for -75 yards when facing secondary pressure (5.8 yards per sack) but scrambled 16 times for 254 yards (15.9 yards per scramble).

That equates to a positive gain of 9.4 yards per dropback that does not result in a pass attempt.

D-Gaps: Texans made Tebow look great

December, 30, 2010
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AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
Tim Tebow got kudos for his performance on Sunday. But was he worthy of such recognition?

Our weekly look at stats and notes from the "other" side of the ball.

Amid any sort of rush to declare Tim Tebow the Denver Broncos quarterback of the future, following his impressive Week 16 performance, the quality (or lack thereof) of the defense he faced may have been forgotten.

Tebow may in fact turn out to be worthy of the first-round pick he was selected with last April, but those calling him the next John Elway would be wise to note that his breakout performance came against a Houston Texans defense that is on pace to allow more passing yards than any team in NFL history, other than the 1995 Atlanta Falcons.

Tebow completed just 16 of his 29 passes vs the Texans, the second-lowest completion percentage of any QB against Houston this season behind a much less-heralded rookie, Tennessee Titans third-stringer Rusty Smith.

Whether or not Tebow develops into the Broncos' answer under center will depend in large part on his ability to improve his accuracy. He’s completing just 56 percent of his passes 10 or fewer yards downfield this season, well below the league average of 67.8 percent on such throws.

Of the 54 quarterbacks who have thrown at least 25 passes of that length in 2010, Tebow’s completion percentage ranks 51st.

Winfield shuts down Vick, Eagles

Antonio Winfield
Winfield
The Minnesota Vikings were able to mostly shut down the NFL’s top-ranked offense Tuesday night by putting steady pressure on Michael Vick, sacking him a season-high six times for 39 yards. Minnesota brought blitzers from every angle and every position, spreading out their six sacks among two defensive ends (Jared Allen and Ray Edwards), a defensive tackle (Letroy Guion), a safety (Jamarca Sanford) and a cornerback (Antoine Winfield).

Winfield was especially effective coming off the edge, registering his first two sacks of the season and forcing a fumble that he returned 45 yards for a game-changing touchdown. He is just the second player this season to record multiple sacks and a fumble return touchdown in the same game, joining Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (Week 8 vs Washington Redskins).

To find the last time a defensive back had such a game, you have to go back more than 10 years. Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber registered two-and-a-half sacks and returned a fumble 24 yards for a score in a 41-0 blowout of the Chicago Bears in Week 2 of the 2000 season.

Does anyone want the interceptions title?

With just one week left in the regular season, the league's interception rate is down about four percent from last year. But the interception leader's total is unusually low.

Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel is poised to win the NFL’s interceptions title, despite having only two picks since the first week of November. Since the season's midpoint, 15 players have more picks than he does.

If Samuel fails to add to his total of seven on Sunday, and no one passes him at the top of the leaderboard (eight players are tied for second with six each), it will be the first time since 1999 that the league’s interceptions leader finished the season with seven or fewer interceptions.

That year, five players finished tied with seven interceptions each. The 1999 season is the only non-strike season when no player reached at least eight interceptions since the AFL’s inaugural season in 1960.

D-Gaps: Colts run defense saves day

December, 23, 2010
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Brian Spurlock/US Presswire
The Colts defense wrapped up Maurice Jones-Drew repeatedly on Sunday, a major key to their victory over Jacksonville.

Our weekly look at the key notes and nuggets from the defensive side of the game

Needing a win to regain control of the AFC South, the unlikeliest of units stepped up in a big way for the Indianapolis Colts in Week 15.

The Colts much-maligned run defense, which entered the game ranked 29th in the NFL, held the Jacksonville Jaguars to just 67 rushing yards, more than 90 below their season average entering Week 15.

But how did the Colts manage to slow a ground game that piled up 699 yards from Weeks 12 to 14, 154 more than any other team?

Indianapolis crowded the line vs Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, putting eight or more men in the box on 45 percent of the Jaguars 22 rushing attempts. The last time the Colts stacked the box with at least eight defenders on at least 45 percent of an opponent’s rushes was in Week 8 of 2008 against Chris Johnson, LenDale White and the Tennessee Titans.

Of course, the most brilliant defensive scheme will fail if it’s not executed properly. But the Colts bottled up the Jaguars rushing attack when crowding the line of scrimmage, holding Jacksonville to just 15 yards on their 10 rushes against at least eight in the box.

Entering the game, the Jaguars were averaging 4.6 yards per rush against defenses with at least eight defenders in the box, fourth-best in the league, so Sunday marked a significant decline in performance. Jones-Drew, who entered with six straight 100-yard games, rushed for just 46 total yards on 15 carries.

Broncos happy to not see Raiders for rest of 2010
In arguably the most forgettable defensive season in Broncos history, Denver’s unit has been at its worst in two losses to the Raiders, surrendering 98 points and more than 1,000 yards its division rivals. The last time the Broncos allowed 98 points to an opponent in a single season was 42 years ago, when the 1968 Chargers ran up 102 points in a pair of wins vs Denver.

Oakland did the majority of its damage vs the Broncos on the ground, totaling 592 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Denver is the first team to allow eight rushing touchdowns to an opponent in a season since 2004 Falcons. (If it makes Broncos fans feel any better, the eight rushing scores the Falcons allowed to the Chiefs that season all came in their Week 7 meeting, making the Falcons the first team to surrender eight rushing scores in a game since the 1923 Rochester Jeffersons.)

Dunlap closing strong
With a 3-11 record and the more productive half of the Batman and Robin duo out for the season, the Bengals aren’t exactly the center of the NFL world entering Week 16. But rookie defensive end Carlos Dunlap deserves attention for his strong play down the stretch.

Dunlap has an NFL-best six sacks since Week 12, including a pair last Sunday that knocked the Browns out of field goal range at the end of the first half and stalled a Cleveland drive midway through the fourth quarter. Over the last four games, Dunlap has more sacks (six) than all but two players did in their entire rookie seasons with the Bengals (James Francis in 1990, Justin Smith in 2001).

D-Gaps: pick six paves way for wins

December, 17, 2010
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When Josh Wilson of the Baltimore Ravens stepped in front of a pass intended for the Texans' Kevin Walter and sprinted 12 yards into the end zone in Monday's win at Houston, he became the 17th player in league history to return an interception for a game-winning score in overtime, and the first since the Bears' Charles Tillman in 2005.

Josh Wilson
Wilson
If Ravens fans were looking for a hero to save them from losing yet another game after leading in the fourth quarter, Wilson would have been a surprisingly good bet. The interception returned for a TD was his fourth since 2008. Over the last three seasons, only Packers cornerback, and former Defensive Player of the Year, Charles Woodson has more (six).

Not all pick-sixes wrap up a win as definitively as Wilson’s, although it sometimes seems that way. This season, teams that have returned an interception for a touchdown in a game went on to win more than 87 percent of the time (34-5). That’s the highest rate since 1977, when teams with a pick-six went 23-3 (88.5 percent).

Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, teams that return an interception for a touchdown in a game are 1,187-343-3, a winning percentage of 77.5. Teams with multiple interception return TDs in the same game have been virtually unbeatable, now 95-4 after the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday behind pick-sixes from Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley.

Wake making late push for sacks title
Cameron Wake
Wake
Two sacks on the Jets' final three offensive plays Sunday gave Miami Dolphins linebacker Cameron Wake an NFL-best 14 sacks this season. That’s tied for the seventh-highest single-season total in franchise history.

Wake became just the second player with a pair of sacks in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter this season. John Abraham sacked Carson Palmer twice late in the Falcons' Week 7 win over the Bengals.

Suh, Lions defense not holding own in middle of field
Ndamukong Suh and the rest of the Detroit Lions defensive line have been given credit -- in this blog and elsewhere -- for their impressive results in getting to the quarterback this season. Detroit’s defensive line has combined for 32 sacks this season, the second-most by any defensive line behind only the New York Giants (33.5).

However, a bit more discipline in the run game couldn’t hurt. Detroit is allowing 5.2 yards per rush on carries in between the tackles this season, the most in the league by a wide margin. To find the last time the Lions allowed as many as five yards per carry in between the tackles, you only have to go back to 2008. That’s when Detroit surrendered 5.0 yards per rush up the middle en route to the first 0-16 record in league history.

D-Gaps: defenses lying in wait for Manning

December, 9, 2010
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Following a stretch of near-flawless football to start the season in which he led the league in touchdown-interception differential and was among the NFL’s top-rated quarterbacks through eight weeks, Peyton Manning is in the midst of arguably the worst slump of his Hall-of-Fame career.

Peyton Manning
Manning
During the Indianapolis Colts' current three-game losing streak, their first in a single season since 2002, Manning ranks 19th in the NFL with a passer rating of 77.7, or one spot behind Jake Delhomme. His league-leading 11 interceptions over that span are more than he threw in any season from 2003-06.

Injuries to some of his favorite targets and the lack of anything resembling a running game are certainly factors in Manning’s recent struggles, but how have NFL defenses contributed to Peyton’s rough run?

One of the most shocking developments during Manning’s recent slump has been how seemingly unconcerned defenses are with getting him on the ground. In his last three games, Manning has been sacked once and hit just nine times.

In consecutive losses to the Patriots, Chargers and Cowboys, Manning has been blitzed on only 14.1% of his dropbacks, nearly half the rate defenses sent five or more rushers after him in the Colts first nine games of the season (27.3%). Of the league’s 31 quarterbacks who have at least 50 pass attempts over the last three weeks, none has been blitzed less frequently than Manning (Shaun Hill is next closest at 15.3%, no one else is below 20%).

In a league where defenses blitz on roughly one-third of passing plays, it’s no accident that teams are repeatedly dropping extra bodies into coverage vs Manning and the Colts over the last three weeks -- and having tremendous success doing it.

Four picks can’t keep Bills from 10th loss
The Buffalo Bills fell to 2-10 for just the second time in the last 25 seasons Sunday despite recording a season-high four interceptions in a 38-14 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

The Bills are the third team to lose this season despite picking off four passes, but a 24-point loss in such a game is far less common. The Bills' margin of defeat is the fourth largest for a team that registered four or more interceptions in a game since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Prior to Sunday, no team had lost by 24 or more points in a game where they intercepted four or more passes since 1980.

All Hail Hali
With two sacks in the Kansas City Chiefs 10-6 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Tamba Hali became the eighth player in Chiefs history to record double-digit sacks in a season and first since Jared Allen in 2007.

Hali also reached another benchmark previously achieved by Allen, becoming the only player in the league this season with at least 10 sacks and two or more fumble recoveries. Allen, James Harrison and Clay Matthews were the only players in the NFL to reach those levels in 2009.

D-Gaps: 3 who can slow pass game Monday

December, 2, 2010
12/02/10
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US Presswire
Devin McCourty (left), Antonio Cromartie (middle) and Mike Wright (right) could be difference-makers in Monday's Jets-Patriots clash.

As the most-anticipated Monday Night Football game of the season draws closer, the biggest names in the New York Jets-New England Patriots rivalry, almost all of whom make their living on the offensive side of the ball, will take center stage.

But which defensive players might have an unforeseen impact on the biggest game of the year? Here are three top candidates:

Patriots CB Devin McCourty
Only three players in the league have more interceptions than Devin McCourty, the rookie from Rutgers, whose five are the most by a Patriots first-year player since Maurice Hurst in 1989, and tied for the second-most in team history. All five of McCourty’s interceptions have come since Week 7, tying him with Asante Samuel and DeAngelo Hall, both former Pro Bowlers, for the NFL lead over that span.

No one has been better at picking off deep passes than McCourty, who leads all players with five interceptions on passes thrown more than 15 yards down the field.

He is a major reason New England is holding opposing quarterbacks to a rating of 74.4 on passes of 15 or more yards, 12th-best in the league. On throws within 14 yards of the line of scrimmage, the Patriots are allowing a passer rating of 98.9, better than just four NFL teams.

Jets CB Antonio Cromartie
For the second straight season, no team has been better at defending the deep ball than the Jets. Rex Ryan’s defense is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 28.6 percent of their passes for 7.4 yards per attempt with a 54.0 passer rating on balls thrown at least 15 yards downfield-- all league best marks.

With MVP-caliber cornerback Darrelle Revis missing two full games and playing hurt in several others, Cromartie has stepped up in a big way. His 15 passes defensed are the second-most in the league and seven more than any other Jets player.

It was Cromartie who led the Jets comeback vs the Patriots in Week 2, picking off Tom Brady on New England’s first possession of the third quarter and breaking up a pass that led to a Brodney Pool interception on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Cromartie and the Jets defense held Brady to 7-for-16 for 69 yards with no TDs and two interceptions in the second half in Week 2, all with Revis watching from the trainer’s room. Only twice in his career has Brady had a lower passer rating in the second half of a game than he did against Cromartie and the Jets.

Patriots DE Mike Wright
Assuming he can return after missing last week’s win vs the Lions with a concussion, Patriots defensive end Mike Wright will start Monday night’s game with more sacks this season (a career-high 5.5) than any other player on the field; a fact even more surprising when you consider that the likes of Jason Taylor, Calvin Pace and Bart Scott will be on the opposing sideline.

Since the Patriots bye week in Week 5, only three players in the AFC have more sacks than Wright’s 4.5.

D-Gaps: QBs more protected than ever?

November, 24, 2010
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After a number of questionable roughing the passer penalties in big spots in Week 11, the chorus of those claiming that the league's overbearing attempts to protect the quarterback are ruining the game has been louder than usual. The argument is familiar: given officials' hypersensitivity to any contact of the quarterback, defenders are being penalized far too often for hits that wouldn't have drawn a flag just a few seasons ago. Whether or not officials are correctly applying the NFL's rules to protect QBs is a matter of opinion, but whether or not the number of roughing the passer penalties has increased is a fact, albeit one that is open to interpretation.

Nine players were flagged for treating the opposing team's QB a bit too forcefully in Week 11, tied with Week 2 for the most roughing the passer calls in a week this season. Entering this week's games, there have been a total of 57 roughing the passer penalties, up slightly from the total though 11 weeks in 2009 (54) and more sharply from 2008 (39).

But those who fondly remember a time just a few years ago when referees kept their flags in their pockets for all but the most egregious infractions are mistaken. Entering Week 12 of the 2006 season, there had been 66 roughing the passer penalties called. The year before, there had been 72. From Week 1 to Week 11 of the 2004 season, players were flagged for roughing the passer 97 times, 70% more often than this year!

Harrison fills up stat sheet
James Harrison
Harrison
The flag James Harrison drew for his hit on Jason Campbell in the Pittsburgh Steelers' win Sunday (negating Ike Taylor's pick-six) might have been the only mistake he made all day. The 2008 Defensive Player of the Year finished the game with five tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble and one interception.

He is the first player with a pair of sacks, a forced fumble and an interception in the same game since Kawika Mitchell in Week 16 of 2007. In fact, it's Harrison's second such game over the last four seasons. All other players have three such games combined.

Browns defense not to blame
The Cleveland Browns' 24-20 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars dropped the Browns to 3-7 and likely extinguished Cleveland's postseason hopes (no 3-7 team has ever reached the playoffs). But it would be tough to hang the loss on a Browns defense that forced six turnovers, its most in a game since 2002. Cleveland's offense turned it over just once, making the Browns the first team to lose despite a turnover margin of plus-five or higher since the Buffalo Bills in Week 5 of the 2007 season.

Cleveland has actually lost two of its last three games with that great a turnover differential, dropping a 24-10 decision to the Tennessee Titans in Week 12 of 2000. Prior to that game, the Browns were a perfect 25-0 when finishing plus-five or better in turnover margin in the post-World War II era. Paul Brown would not be pleased.

D-Gaps: picking on pass D

November, 18, 2010
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The inability of NFL defenses to stop increasingly complex and proficient passing attacks was never more evident than in Week 10, when 13 different quarterbacks threw for more than 300 yards and QBs averaged a 96.3 passer rating, both league records according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

But which teams are contributing to the league-wide decline of effective passing defense and which, if any, are bucking the trend?

The logical place to start is with the Houston Texans, surrendering a league-high 301.3 passing yards per game. They're on pace to allow 4,820 yards through the air in 2010, which would be nearly 300 yards more than any team in NFL history (the 1995 Atlanta Falcons allowed 4,541).

The Texans pass defense isn't one of the league's worst solely because they're giving up yardage in chunks. No team has allowed more touchdown passes than the Texans (22) this season, and only the Buffalo Bills have fewer interceptions than Houston (5). Gary Kubiak's club is the first in NFL history to allow 22 pass TDs with fewer than five interceptions in its first nine games of the season.

While the Texans defense has been exposed by all lengths of passes this season, struggles against the deep ball are mostly to blame for the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 29th-ranked pass defense. The Jags have been decimated by passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield in 2010. Opponents are completing 56.3 of their deep passes against Jacksonville and averaging more than 21 yards on such attempts, making the Jaguars the league’s worst pass defense against the deep ball this season.

Embattled members of the Jaguars secondary would surely be among the first to point out that it's tough to cover receivers when the quarterback has ample time to set up in the pocket or when a team is forced to send extra rushers after the QB. Jacksonville has just five sacks when not blitzing in 2010, more than only three NFL teams.

That might be a reason the Jaguars have blitzed on 39 percent of passing plays this year, the seventh-highest rate in the NFL, as well as a contributing factor to the struggles of the Jags secondary against deep passes.

But it's not all doom and gloom among NFL pass defenses. Some have found ways to succeed in the year of the quarterback:

• The Philadelphia Eagles lead the NFL with 16 interceptions, their most at this point in the season since 1989.
• The New Orleans Saints are surrendering an NFL-low 166.3 passing yards per game, including just 68 to the Panthers in Week 10, the best single-game performance by their pass defense since the 2006 season.
• The Bills haven't done much well in 2010, but no team has been better at preventing the big completion. Buffalo has allowed just one pass play of 40 or more yards this season, tied with the Patriots for the fewest in the league.

D-Gaps: Steelers' fourth-quarter troubles

November, 11, 2010
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When the Pittsburgh Steelers took a 27-7 lead over the Cincinnati Bengals early in the fourth quarter Monday night, the thousands of Steelers fans in attendance at Paul Brown Stadium undoubtedly began to turn their thoughts to the team’s week 10 showdown with the New England Patriots.

And who could blame them? Never in the 77-year history of the Steelers has the team lost a game it led by at least 20 points. And no team has overcome a 20-point, fourth-quarter deficit in nearly four years, since the Tennessee Titans beat the New York Giants 24-21 in week 12 of the 2006 season.

But over the following 14:50, the same Steelers defense that held the Bengals to seven points and 156 yards through three quarters allowed 14 points, 116 yards and was a Jordan Shipley drop away from giving Cincinnati four shots to win the game from the 5-yard line. The Steelers’ late meltdown is the latest in a disturbing trend for one of the league’s premier defenses.

Pittsburgh has allowed an NFL-best 123 points through nine weeks, but more than half -- 63 to be exact -- have come in the fourth quarter. It’s not a one-year phenomenon for the Steelers, who allowed more fourth-quarter points than all but two teams in 2009, and let up 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII before coming back to win.

Three of Pittsburgh’s seven losses last season came after it led by more than a field goal entering the final quarter, shocking when you consider in the previous 10 seasons (1999-2008) the Steelers were 75-3-1 in games where they led by at least four entering the last quarter, the best record in the NFL. Since 2009, Pittsburgh is 10-3 in such games, the league’s 27th-best record.

Matthews keeps up Defensive Player of the Year pace
Clay Matthews
Matthews
Clay Matthews is accomplishing something notable every week, but his performance vs the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night deserves special recognition. Matthews registered a sack of Jon Kitna, stoned Marion Barber for a 3-yard loss on third-and-1 and capped the scoring with a 62-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Matthews’ sack gives him an NFL-best 10.5 this season and makes him one of five active players to record double-digit sacks in each of his first two seasons. He’s also the second Green Bay Packers player to record double-digit sacks and an interception return touchdown in the same season, joining Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who did it in 2002.

Dallas lacking the "D"
If there is anyone out there who thinks Jerry Jones made the wrong decision by firing Wade Phillips Monday, consider the way Phillips’ defense performed in the first half of 2010. Only the 0-8 Buffalo Bills are allowing more points per game than the Cowboys’ 29.0, the highest total the Cowboys have allowed at the midpoint of the season since 1989.

And Dallas’ defense has been truly terrible lately, surrendering 41, 35, and 45 points in its last three games. It’s the first time the Cowboys have allowed 35 or more points in three straight games since Oct. 30, Nov. 6 and Nov. 13, 1960, the sixth, seventh and eighth games in franchise history.

D-Gaps: is Suh top defensive tackle?

November, 4, 2010
11/04/10
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Ndamukong Suh
Suh
Less than halfway through the season, Ndamukong Suh has established himself as the clear front-runner in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year race and has shown he has the potential to be the league's best pass-rushing interior lineman for years to come.

After recording two sacks Sunday vs the Washington Redskins, Suh now has six-and-a-half this season, tied for eighth in the NFL and three more than any other rookie. No defensive tackle has gotten to the QB more often than Suh, who is on pace to become the first defensive tackle to reach double digits in sacks since Warren Sapp in 2006.

Suh has contributed even when he's been kept out of the backfield, registering an interception vs the St. Louis Rams in Week 5 and a TD on a 17-yard fumble return Sunday. Suh is one of three players with a sack, interception, and fumble return TD this season, joining Tyvon Branch and Quintin Mikell. Since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, Suh is the first rookie defensive lineman with a sack, interception and fumble return TD.

Packers deliver first shutout of 2010
Through eight weeks, there have been 117 games played in the NFL and exactly one shutout. The Green Bay Packers 9-0 blanking of the Jets last Sunday was the first shutout of the NFL season. Week 8 is the latest we've had to wait for the first shutout of the season since 2005, when the New York Giants beat the Redskins 36-0 in Week 8.

Going back all the way to 1940, there have been only four seasons with no shutouts through seven weeks: 1956, 1997, 2005 and 2010. Could 2010 break the record for fewest shutouts in a season? It's possible, although it will require that no team gets blanked for the remainder of the year. Since the AFL formed in 1960, there's never been a season with only one shutout. There were two in both 1965 and 1994.

Texans defense not ready for primetime
If the Houston Texans are planning to make a playoff run for the first time in team history, someone should tell their defense. Through eight weeks, Houston is allowing an NFL-worst 404.1 yards per game and is on pace to surrender 6,465 yards in 2010. That would be the third-most yards allowed in a season in league history, behind only the 1981 Indianapolis Colts (6,793) and 2008 Detroit Lions (6,470). Those two teams finished a combined 2-30.

Each of the Texans' seven opponents have scored at least 24 points. The Elias Sports Bureau tells us this makes Houston the first team to allow 24 or more in its first seven games of the season since the 1989 Dallas Cowboys, who finished 1-15.

D-Gaps: Picks by Ed Reed, DeAngelo Hall

October, 28, 2010
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Filling you in on what you may have missed on the "other" side of the ball this week

Two years ago, NFL teams combined for just 1.82 interceptions per game, the lowest total since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger by a wide margin. Through the first seven weeks of the 2010 season, that number has climbed to 2.06 picks per game, an increase of nearly one-quarter of an interception per game in less than two full seasons. To celebrate the numbers that are sure to bring a smile to the face of every defensive coordinator, let’s take a look at a trio of history-making performances from this past Sunday that show you can’t spell “win” without I-N-T.

Hall ties NFL mark vs Bears
DeAngelo Hall
Hall
Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall entered the week tied for 33rd in the league with just one interception. Now, the rest of the NFL is staring up at Hall after he tied a long-standing record with four interceptions Sunday against the Bears.

Hall is the first player to register four picks in a game since the Denver Broncos’ Deltha O’Neal in 2001 and 19th to do it in league history. Legendary Redskins Hall-of-Famer Sammy Baugh was the first player to intercept four passes, doing it in a 42-20 win vs the Detroit Lions on November 14, 1943 (a game in which he also threw four TD passes).

All four of Hall’s interceptions came after halftime, even more impressive when you consider that only eight teams have more than four picks in the second half this season. Hall returned his second interception 92 yards for a score, making him the first player to intercept four passes and return one for a touchdown since 1978, when Green Bay Packers cornerback Willie Buchanon did it against the Chargers.

Bowens historically good vs Saints
Hall wasn’t the only player to tie an oft-equaled NFL record on Sunday, as Cleveland Browns linebacker David Bowens became the 26th player in NFL history to return two interceptions for scores in the same game. Bowens wasn’t exactly the most likely candidate to take back a pair of picks -- the 12-year veteran entered Sunday with only two interceptions in 154 career games.

Bowens' feat is even more unusual when you consider that he is a former defensive end now playing outside linebacker in the Browns 3-4 defense. He is the third linebacker in the Super Bowl era with two interceptions returned for touchdowns in a game, and the second one in the past calendar year to do it. Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson also had two pick-sixes against the Broncos January 3 in the final week of the regular season.

Many happy returns for Reed
Ed Reed
Reed
The third player with multiple picks last week was Ravens safety Ed Reed, appearing in his first game this season after offseason hip surgery. Reed showed little rust as he registered his ninth career multi-pick game, the most among active players.

Since the merger in 1970, only two players have more games with at least two interceptions than Reed: Paul Krause, the NFL’s career leader in interceptions, and Ronnie Lott, widely considered one of the best safeties to ever play on Sundays. As Reed continues to add to his already impressive credentials, it appears more and more likely that he’ll end up with a bust alongside both of them in Canton.

D-Gaps: Inside the Eagles no-fly zone

October, 21, 2010
10/21/10
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Filling you in on what you may have missed on the “other” side of the ball this week.

It will be months or even years before we can definitively say which team got the better end of the deal that sent Donovan McNabb to the Washington Redskins last April, but early returns favor the Philadelphia Eagles.

With two of the league’s seven highest rated quarterbacks on their roster, it’s doubtful McNabb could be doing much for the Eagles that they’re not already getting from Michael Vick and Kevin Kolb.

Nate Allen
Allen
And while McNabb struggles to adapt to the Redskins offense, rookie safety Nate Allen, taken by the Birds with one of the two draft picks acquired in the trade, is leading a resurgent Eagles secondary. Panthers safety Charles Godfrey is the only player in the league with more interceptions than Allen’s three. Already, Allen is the first Eagles rookie with three picks since Brian Dawkins in 1996.

But Allen is only one part of a unit that has been critical to the team’s early success. Philadelphia is holding opponents to less than 200 passing yards per game this season, ninth in the NFL, and only three teams have more interceptions than the Eagles’ nine.

Philly’s most dramatic improvement has been against deep passes. A year after allowing opposing quarterbacks a passer rating just over 66 on throws at least 15 yards down the field, the Eagles secondary has been stingy against the deep ball in 2010. Opposing QBs have a passer rating of just 47.3 on throws of 15 yards or more against Allen and the Eagles pass defense, the lowest rating allowed in the league this season.

Defensive rankings look nothing like standings
Back in September, we noted that in the 16 games played in Week three, the teams that won combined for fewer yards than the teams that lost. One look at the extremes of the league’s defensive rankings entering Sunday is further confirmation that, at least in 2010, yards and wins have little correlation.

At 3-3, the Redskins are very much in the thick of the NFC East race despite allowing a league-high 420.0 yards per game. Washington is the first team to let up at least 420 yards per game through six games and not have a losing record since the 2002 Kansas City Chiefs.

Then there are the San Diego Chargers, the posterchildren for those who claim that yards are independent of wins. They lead the NFL in both yards per game (432.7) and yards per game allowed (255.2), the first team to lead in both categories this late in the season since the San Francisco 49ers finished the 1987 regular season with the league’s top-ranked offense and defense. Not that it’s doing much good for San Diego, currently tied for last in the lowly AFC West at 2-4.

Umenyiora forcing the issue
More than two years removed from a preseason knee injury that caused him to miss all of the 2008 season, Osi Umenyiora seems to have finally regained the form that made him a Pro Bowler in 2005 and 2007. Umenyiora’s eight sacks are second in the NFL and his league-best seven forced fumbles, three more than any other player, put him on a historic pace.

Forced fumbles are not an official statistic (no all-time single-season record exists), but we haven’t seen a player knock the ball loose like Umenyiora this season in quite some time. In each of the last two seasons, the league leader in forced fumbles (Shaun Phillips in 2009, James Harrison in 2008) finished the regular season with seven forced fumbles.

With his next fumble forced, Umenyiora will have the highest single-season total since Chris Harris had eight for the Carolina Panthers in 2007.

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