NFL Divisional Preview: Sunday Edition

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The lead-up to Sunday’s playoff games is dominated by a pair of injured quarterbacks. In Green Bay, there’s Aaron Rodgers, whose calf ailment appeared in Week 16 before biting down hard in the North-clinching win against the Lions. While Rodgers has managed to play without losing much at all, Peyton Manning has seemingly faded during December without anywhere near as obvious of an injury. Manning has been credited with various maladies; officially, a thigh injury suffered while trying to block against the Chargers and the flu, with the more salacious stuff surrounding the possibility that his arm strength is sapped by some debilitating damage to one of the various components in the Manning arm-neck complex. Speculation, as always, is fun.

A good chunk of the evidence that Manning is, in fact, injured centers on the shift in the Denver game plan, the move to a run-oriented attack built around undrafted free agent C.J. Anderson, who was Denver’s third-string running back when the season started. For Rodgers, meanwhile, we can see from his gutsy effort in the second half of Week 17 just how the Packers plan on structuring an offense around their ailing passer. It seems strange to think that the passer who perpetually gets hit more than anybody else in football and the guy who played through two broken bones in his back are the healthy quarterbacks for Sunday’s games, but that’s where we are.

Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers

Adam Schefter reported earlier this week that Rodgers was dealing with a severely strained, slightly torn calf, news that sounds worse than it actually is. A strain, by definition, is a tear. While the Packers haven’t publicly commented on the specifics of Rodgers’s injury, Rodgers very clearly doesn’t have a Grade 3 calf strain, the most severe type and the one that would leave him unlikely to play. He has a lower-graded calf strain, possibly somewhere between Grade 1 and Grade 2.

In either case, Rodgers has very clearly been able to play through the injury, as he did when he came back for most of the second half against Detroit. The concern isn’t really that Rodgers will struggle to perform well but instead that he will reaggravate the calf and suffer a more serious recurrence, as he did in the Lions game. The only way to really heal the calf strain is to rest, and with the Packers in the playoffs, that’s not about to happen.

Instead, the Packers will try to limit Rodgers’s workload to make it less likely he reaggravates the calf. Some of that, naturally, comes in how they treat Rodgers in practice and how much rest they gave him during the bye week. On the field, Mike McCarthy will likely make changes to the offense to keep Rodgers in the pocket and prevent him from scrambling.

We saw a bunch of these changes during the second half of the game against Detroit, as Matt Bowen of Bleacher Report documented after the victory. It remains to be seen how many of those changes stick and how frequently the Packers go to them in this playoff game, because it could head in two very different directions. If Rodgers is healthier than he was against the Lions, they’ll likely go back to a more traditional version of their offense.

If they’re seriously concerned about Rodgers’s calf, the bye week and ensuing week of practice would have given them two weeks to install more of the calf-friendly offensive concepts they called upon to keep Rodgers from moving as much as he normally would. It’s never a bad thing to show teams new looks in the playoffs anyway, but the Packers have had two weeks to insert new concepts and craft a scheme around the limitations of their star quarterback. Which, as it turns out, might not be very limiting at all.

The Rodgers Plan

The best thing the Packers can do for Rodgers to avoid putting pressure on his calf is avoid dropbacks. That means a new look for the Packers — the pistol. Rodgers hadn’t thrown a single pass out of the pistol in 2014 before suffering his calf injury against the Buccaneers in Week 16. Green Bay went to the pistol six times against the Bucs before using it 26 times against the Lions, with 16 of those snaps coming in the second half.

The pistol is great for the Packers because it takes virtually all of the stress off Rodgers. If he wants to hand the ball off to Eddie Lacy, he doesn’t have to move at all, saving him a minimum of one step on every play. Twenty of the 26 pistol snaps the Packers took against the Lions turned out to be running plays, and they were wildly successful. The Packers produced 107 yards on those 20 runs, an average of 5.4 yards per attempt against one of the best run defenses in recent league history. Their 18 other carries against the Lions produced a total of just 45 yards.

The other benefit the pistol affords the Packers is the ability to create more doubt about their intentions before the snap by how they’re lined up. The Packers are normally a very shotgun-intensive team. Through Week 15 — before the calf injury — they had taken 60.6 percent of their snaps out of the shotgun, the 13th-highest rate in football. It’s very difficult to mask your plan and run the football out of the shotgun; teams run the ball just 22.3 percent of the time when they’re in the traditional shotgun alignment. When they’re in the pistol, that figure rises to 57.9 percent, and it increases to 67.8 percent when teams are under center.

By staying in the pistol, the Packers can leave teams guessing until the last moment, a dangerous move when you consider just how fast Rodgers can deliver the football. We also saw them throwing the Lions off by using packaged plays out of the pistol, something I would be shocked to see them not do more frequently against the Cowboys on Sunday. In his excellent piece on the Green Bay offense from earlier this week, Chris Brown included a GIF of a packaged play from Week 17 that freed up Jordy Nelson for an easy 15 yards.

Those quick stick routes and decisions at the line of scrimmage all play to Green Bay’s strengths, notably Rodgers’s absurdly quick delivery and ability to fit the ball into impossibly tight windows and Nelson’s ability to create after the catch. They also play to Rodgers’s newfound calf concerns, given that he barely has to move before making his throw. The Packers will expect to find those throwing lanes on Sunday, especially if Cowboys middle linebacker Rolando McClain is out with a concussion.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see more quick throws from the Packers in general, something that isn’t normally their penchant. As you might suspect from somebody who creates so much time for himself outside the pocket and often improvises to create new targets, Rodgers holds on to the football for a long time; he averaged 2.66 seconds with the football before throwing it this year, the 10th-longest average in the NFL. In the second half against the Lions, though, the ball came out quick. He averaged just 2.17 seconds before his throws, which would have been the fourth-quickest average pass rate in Week 17. And in general, Rodgers doesn’t slip too much when he gets the ball out quick. On throws that came after he held on to the ball for two seconds or less this season, Rodgers was second in the league in QBR.

Really, as you might suspect, Rodgers was great no matter how you split things on offense. He posted the third-best QBR on throws outside the pocket and the third-best QBR on throws inside the pocket. He had the league’s third-best QBR on throws traveling 15 yards or more in the air and the second-best QBR on throws that traveled 14 yards or less in the air. Rodgers had the league’s second-best QBR on throws outside the numbers, the league’s ninth-best QBR on throws between the numbers and hashes, and the best QBR on throws between the hashes, a staggering 99.8 figure. That should matter even more on Sunday, with the Packers likely trying to give Rodgers routes that break into the middle of the field to make for easier completions.

And likewise, the Cowboys pass defense isn’t significantly better or worse in most notable splits. The difference is that Rodgers ranks in the top three in just about every style of quarterback play you can imagine, while the Cowboys pass defense often ranks between 21st and 26th in opposing QBR. They’re 22nd against throws out of the pistol or shotgun and 25th on throws from under center.1 The Dallas defense is 21st on throws coming from inside the pocket and 25th on throws from outside the pocket. It’s 26th on passes that come out after just two seconds or less. You get the idea. This is a dominant passing attack against a pretty middling pass defense.

It’s also not an especially healthy pass defense. The Cowboys could be without as many as four defensive contributors on Sunday, although it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see all four of them go. McClain suffered a concussion and may miss the game, while Jeremy Mincey was added to the injury report with concussion symptoms on Wednesday. Neither defender has practiced this week. Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Lawrence chipped in against the Lions with some fourth-quarter pass rushing and would play bigger roles with Mincey out. The now-infamous Anthony Hitchens is working through a high ankle sprain that might be a bigger problem than Dallas was previously letting on, and defensive tackle Terrell McClain is dealing with a low ankle sprain. None of this is good for the Cowboys, who lacked depth even before dealing with a string of injuries.

Dare to Dream

What is good for the Cowboys is how they match up with the Packers when Dallas has the football. Forget the Lions, who were a brutal matchup for Dallas given their dominant run defense. Green Bay’s weaknesses play into what Dallas does best on offense.

That starts, naturally, with running the football. Green Bay is far better defending the pass (against which it’s 11th in DVOA) than it is against the run, where it’s just 24th. Things didn’t get much better after the Packers turned Clay Matthews into an occasional inside linebacker in November, either, as Green Bay was 24th in DVOA against the run during the first half of the season and improved only to 20th during the second half of the campaign.

The Packers even struggle in the exact spot where the Cowboys run the ball best. Dallas loathes running the ball directly up the gut and instead chooses to run far more frequently behind its tackles. Thirty-six percent of Dallas’s carries this year went to left end or behind left tackle, which was the highest rate in football. The Cowboys’ vaunted offensive line was also wildly successful on those runs, producing the league’s sixth-most Adjusted Line Yards on runs behind left end and the third-best rate on runs at the left tackle.

Green Bay? It had problems. Teams ran toward its right side (the left side of the offense) at a league-average frequency, but fared well in the process. The Packers’ defensive front was 28th in Adjusted Line Yards allowed to left end and 30th on runs at left tackle. It got beaten up. Otherwise, the Packers ranked between 16th and 19th in runs to the rest of the field, so it wasn’t just a product of a bad defense; there’s something legitimate to worry about when Dallas runs DeMarco Murray to the left on Sunday. Given the likelihood that right tackle Doug Free will miss another game, the Packers can expect Jason Garrett & Co. to run behind the left side of the line even more frequently.

And when teams threw the ball against the Packers, their most relevant weak point came against no. 1 receivers, for whom they posted the league’s 14th-best defensive DVOA. Green Bay is in the top 10 in covering all other wideouts, and while it keeps no. 2 and no. 3 wideouts below league-average yardage totals, the Packers are allowing opposing no. 1s 71.5 yards per game, just above the league-average of 68.9. That plays into Dallas’s passing attack, built around the many talents of one Dez Bryant.

Interestingly enough, the Packers also have an enormous split in terms of DVOA by side. They’ve posted the league’s best DVOA (minus-37.6 percent) on throws to the right side of the offense, meaning they’re going up against the left cornerback, which is Tramon Williams’s side of the field.2 Elsewhere, Green Bay is 22nd in DVOA on throws to the left side of the field (where Sam Shields lies in wait) and a brutal 29th on throws up the middle. The Cowboys don’t keep their receivers on one side; Bryant has 39 receptions on throws toward the left side of the field and 43 on throws to the right side.

The one way the Packers do match up well against the Cowboys is the way in which they like to get off the field: takeaways. The Packers have often been a team that relies heavily on turnovers under Dom Capers, and this is no exception in 2014. The Packers are 26th in three-and-outs on defense and force punts on only 36.5 percent of opposing possessions, the sixth-worst rate in the league. They make up for all of that by forcing turnovers on 15.3 percent of opposing possessions, the fourth-best rate in football.

The Cowboys, for all their offensive strengths, still have a problem with turnovers. They give the ball away on 13.5 percent of their own possessions, the ninth-worst rate in the league. To be fair, most of that is on fumbles, where the Cowboys have been a little unlucky, recovering just seven of 21 on offense.

They’re also even more dependent upon the turnover on defense than Green Bay, and that’s where I’d be worried if I were a Dallas fan. No defense in the league needed takeaways more than the Cowboys, as they led the NFL by ending 17.2 percent of their defensive drives this year with turnovers. The problem is that the Packers simply don’t turn the ball over, coughing the ball up on 7.4 percent of their own possessions. Only the Seahawks narrowly managed to give the ball away less frequently than the Packers did. If the Cowboys can’t harass an injured Rodgers into making dangerous throws or get a fumble out of Lacy, they might not be able to stop the Green Bay offense. And while it’s not necessarily a problem for the Cowboys if things do devolve into a shootout because of how good their offense can be, shootouts with Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau can be a dangerous proposition.

Oakland Raiders v Denver Broncos

Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos

There’s no other way to talk about this matchup than by starting with the question of whether Peyton Manning is going to be Peyton Manning in these playoffs. While I don’t doubt that there’s something to be worried about with the listed thigh injury that slowed him during and after Week 15, I also don’t think that’s going to be something that dramatically affects Manning’s game, given that he’s basically a statue on a good day. The guy played through a high ankle sprain last season and put up one of the greatest offensive seasons in NFL history. I’m not especially concerned about his thigh.

The bigger concern is — as I mentioned in the intro — the dramatic shift in the Denver game plan over the final six weeks of the season. Let’s run that back and see if the style change seems to hint at a serious injury to Peyton Manning.

Peyton of Bricks

In Week 11, the Broncos went to St. Louis and left with their tail between their legs. The Rams showed Denver up in a comfortable 22-7 victory, with those lone seven points representing the worst offensive performance from the Broncos since Manning joined the team in 2012. It wasn’t a particularly physical game for Manning, who was sacked twice and knocked down four times, but he did stay at the helm of an offense that went particularly pass-happy.

Despite losing Julius Thomas to the ankle injury that would basically cost him the rest of the season and Emmanuel Sanders to a concussion, the Broncos almost totally abandoned the run and went with short pass after short pass. With Montee Ball also leaving the game with a groin injury, the Broncos ran the ball just nine times,3 with all nine carries going to C.J. Anderson, who had seen his first significant action of the season the previous week in a blowout win over the Raiders.

Manning threw the ball 54 times in that game, and while those throws produced 389 yards, it wasn’t an effective performance. He threw two picks, one of which was basically a desperation throw late in the fourth quarter. The Broncos were repeatedly behind the down-and-distance schedule and went just 4-of-15 on third and fourth downs, while their defense was forced to spend almost 36 minutes on the field.

The change in Denver’s offensive scheme since then is clear, tangible, and undeniable. The Broncos followed that run-free Rams game by having Manning hand the ball off on 10 of their first 13 plays from scrimmage against the Dolphins in Week 12 and haven’t looked back. Denver has become a run-first team to a shocking extent.

Through that St. Louis game in Week 11, the Broncos ran the ball on just 36.4 percent of their offensive snaps, the sixth-lowest rate in football. Since then, the Anderson-led attack has run the ball 50.0 percent of the time. That’s the seventh-highest run/pass split in football over that time frame. The second-year back has picked up a league-leading 648 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns since his cameo in the Rams game, and his 140 carries are second only to DeMarco Murray, who is being exploited for sport by the Cowboys. And while it seems weird, it’s also fair to note that the Broncos have actually scored slightly more since making the change; they averaged 29.3 points per game through the Rams loss and have averaged 31.5 points per game during their 5-1 finish to the regular season.4

The running attack has had the impact of insulating Manning from pass pressure, but that wasn’t a problem for the Broncos to begin with. Through the Rams game, Manning was being pressured on just 15.1 percent of his dropbacks, which was the lowest rate in football. Since then, he’s been getting pressured an unreal-low 10.5 percent of the time, which is eons away from anybody else. Over that same period, the second-least pressured quarterback has been Ben Roethlisberger, who’s been bothered by the opposing pass rush 16.6 percent of the time. He’s closer to ninth place than he is to Manning in first. It’s unreal.

You would figure that Manning is getting the ball out quickly to avoid any hint of a rush, and that’s true, but it’s another thing he was already focusing on before the move to an Anderson-based attack occurred. He got the ball out after an average of just 2.26 seconds through that Rams game, the second-fastest rate in football. Since then, he’s down to 2.13 seconds before passing, which is no. 1 over the past six weeks.

And then there’s the critical mistake, the one I made myself before looking at what Manning’s actually done. You would figure that Manning would be making shorter throws, and if you have an offense that’s getting the ball out quicker, running it way more frequently, and keeping Manning from making deep throws, that’s probably enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that there’s something to the injury theory. Except he’s not making shorter throws. Manning’s average pass over the past six weeks has traveled a full yard farther in the air than it did through that Rams game. He was right around league average — 16th, at 8.1 air yards per pass — in terms of his typical pass distance through Week 11. He’s at sixth since then, throwing passes that have averaged 9.1 yards in the air.

An impressive 25.3 percent of Manning’s post-Rams passes have gone 15 yards or more in the air, up from 20.4 percent through the Rams outing. And while you might easily hop onto the idea that those passes haven’t been very successful, Manning’s decline isn’t all that significant. He was sixth in QBR on throws traveling 15 yards or more in the air before the offensive switchover. Over the last six weeks, he’s fallen to just 10th. And remember that QBR attempts to judge a quarterback’s contributions to the play as opposed to the work of his receivers, so this isn’t Demaryius Thomas bailing Manning out, either.

Truthfully, Manning hasn’t slipped all that much. His QBR has fallen over these two periods, but only from third (at 80.0) through the Rams game to eighth (at 70.9) over the six games since. That’s a decline, but is it really such an obvious decline that it couldn’t have happened by chance? Consider that, over the same time splits, Andrew Luck posted the league’s seventh-best QBR through Week 11 and fell all way to 21st afterward, posting a QBR worse than Geno Smith, Kyle Orton, and Drew Stanton. Was that inherently a sign that Luck was injured or wouldn’t be able to push things forward once the playoffs began? If you saw Luck dismantle the Bengals last week, you know the answer to those questions is no.

Instead, I think there’s probably a combination of factors that led the Broncos to move toward a run-happy approach. One was the absence of Julius Thomas, which left Manning without a critical intermediate option and actually had a far more tangible impact on Manning’s performance than any other number I can find. Through that Rams game, Manning posted a 97.1 QBR in the red zone, the best figure in football. Julius Thomas was obviously the primary weapon on those throws, as he led all players in red zone receptions (13), yards (94, tied with Demaryius Thomas), and touchdowns (nine) through the Rams game.

Afterward, with Julius Thomas inactive or ineffective because of his ankle injury, Manning’s red zone QBR fell all the way to 56.8, which was 15th in the league. The Broncos went away from throwing the ball in the red zone, after having passed more frequently than any team besides the Bears inside the opposition 20 through that Rams game. Since then, they’ve run the ball 42.5 percent of the time in the red zone, which is right around league average (45 percent). Julius Thomas wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent when he returned late in the season, so if he’s made it back closer to his so-easy self, it could be all the impetus Manning needs.

My suspicion is that the Broncos made the changes in their offense not to mask or overcome a Manning injury, but instead to prevent one. It would have been easy to see the strain on Manning after that Rams game, when the Broncos had basically abandoned the run and left the entire game on his shoulders. At 38, even given how great Manning can be on a per-play basis, that’s probably not the prudent thing to do.

Maybe the Broncos were worried that Manning’s arm would wear down if they kept using him as frequently as they were heading out of the Rams game. Last year, including the playoffs, Manning averaged exactly 41 passes per game and had thrown a whopping 738 passes heading into the Super Bowl. The only quarterbacks in the history of football to throw that many passes before the Super Bowl were Drew Brees in 2011 and Drew Bledsoe in 1994. While I would hardly blame Manning alone for the Super Bowl loss, it’s fair to wonder whether he might have been able to do more with a sprier arm.

This year? Through that Rams game, Manning was averaging … 40.7 passes per game. That’s not acceptable. I think the Broncos deliberately cut down his workload to keep his arm fresh for the playoffs, and Manning will enter having thrown just 31.7 passes per contest over those final six games, in addition to the first-round bye his team just received.

Furthermore, even within the games in which Manning was supposed to be injured, he played stretches of good football. Take the one loss the Broncos have suffered over the past six weeks, the 37-28 loss to Cincinnati in which Manning threw four picks and finished with an ugly pick-six to Dre Kirkpatrick. If Manning were hurt, that would have been a consistently poor performance from start to finish. Instead, it was an inconsistent showing. He pieced together a few successful drives on the strength of his arm, notably the nine-play, 79-yard possession in the third quarter that saw Manning account for 68 of the 79 yards.

I’ll buy the idea that Manning had a bit of a dead arm, that he needed to be saved from a ridiculous workload, that he isn’t going to be the same player he was at his peak. Sure. But the evidence that he’s got some sort of neck, arm, shoulder, or elbow injury just really isn’t there in spades the way that the stories make it out to be. If Manning’s injured, we’ll know more about it this time next week. And if he’s not — and keep in mind that we were all sure Cam Newton was injured and needed to go on IR at the beginning of December — the Colts are in trouble.

It’s not hard to imagine a Colts win if Manning is 60 percent of his normal self. Indianapolis shuts down the running game, Luck throws against a Denver secondary that can be beaten in the middle and finds T.Y. Hilton for a few big plays, and the Colts get an enormous day out of their specialists in the thin air of Denver, with Adam Vinatieri hitting from 50-plus while Pat McAfee flips field position over and over again for Indianapolis. But if Manning is his usual self, the Colts probably don’t have the talent or athleticism to keep up with the Broncos.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Playoffs, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell