NFL Divisional Preview: Saturday EditionStreeter Lecka/Getty Images
Two full days of NFL playoff action are on the schedule, so let’s break them down. Tomorrow, we’ll take on the two Sunday games; today, let’s look at Saturday’s matchups.
Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks
You’ll have to look hard to find somebody who thinks Carolina is going to win in Seattle on Saturday night. The Panthers will head to the Pacific Northwest as 11-point underdogs, leaving them as just the fourth team since the league switched to its current playoff structure in 2002 to enter the divisional round with a spread of more than 10 points, and the first since the Tim Tebow–led Broncos in 2011. The Patriots stomped those Broncos by 35 points.
And yet we have evidence that the Panthers can play the Seahawks tough. These teams have played each other in each of the last three regular seasons, and while those games were all in Carolina, they were all close. Seattle has won all three, but they’ve been battles — one of which involved overcoming a second-half Panthers lead — and the margin of victory has been by a combined 13 points. No telling whether this Carolina team will be quite as resilient against this version of the Seahawks in Seattle, but there’s at least precedent for the idea that the Panthers might match up well with them.
It’s always more interesting to preview games like this, contests in which one team is a heavy favorite, from the perspective of the underdog and how it might overcome the odds. There’s no use in analyzing things from Seattle’s perspective or from a how-do-they-match-up approach, because it wouldn’t be interesting. Seattle has advantages up and down its roster and across just about every measure of performance this season.
Put it this way: Carolina’s defense got hot over the final month of the season, allowing 43 points over four games. Seattle’s defense finished the season by allowing 39 points over its final six games, the fourth-best six-game stretch since 1990. Even throw in the 41 points they allowed in the first two games of the back eight and the Seahawks allowed just 80 points during the second half of the season, the third-best mark since 1990 and the best second-half run since 2000. This could very well be a team whose defense has propelled itself into looking pretty good versus a team that’s swung itself back into one of the best defenses of all time.
But I keep coming back to the close games between these two. Is there something about the Panthers that hits at Seattle’s core? The Panthers have had virtually no offensive success over the last three years against the Seattle defense, a trend I would expect to continue on Saturday, but how have the Panthers managed to hold a Seahawks team that’s averaged nearly 25 points per game under Russell Wilson’s stewardship to 16 points or fewer in all three of their matchups? And can they repeat it again to keep things closer than you might expect on Saturday?
The Carolina Blueprint
The Panthers have done a few things very well against the Seahawks in those three games. Some of them are matchups that are likely to recur. Others are far flukier remnants of performance. In either case, they’re all things that Ron Rivera’s bunch will need to repeat to come away with an upset in Seattle this weekend.
As you might suspect for a matchup with the Seahawks, stopping Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle rushing attack is of the utmost importance. Carolina’s run defense has been highly regarded over the past three seasons, ranking 11th in DVOA in 2012 and sixth last year before slipping to 22nd this season. You don’t need me to introduce Lynch and what Seattle’s rushing attack can do.
In those three games against the Panthers, though, the Seahawks have really struggled to run the ball. They averaged under three yards per carry during the matchups in 2012 and 2013, and while they improved a bit during this season’s contest, they’ve run the ball 87 times for 287 yards across the three Newton-Wilson bowls. That’s an average of just 3.3 yards per carry. Lynch has been a little better, averaging 3.7 yards per carry on his 52 attempts, but this is still well below par for an offense that has averaged nearly 4.9 yards per carry against the league’s other 31 teams over the past three seasons.
One of the reasons the Seahawks are so efficient running the football is Wilson himself, and the Panthers have done a decent job of limiting both the frequency with which Wilson scrambles with the football and how successful he is in doing so. Wilson has carried the ball 16 times across those three games and gained just 54 yards, an average of 3.4 yards per attempt and 18 yards per game. Against the rest of the league, Wilson is an unstoppable force of nature who works opposing pass rushes and linebackers to their limit. He’s averaged 6.2 yards per rush and just under 40 yards per game against the rest of the NFL.
Wilson also stretches the opposition whether he’s in the pocket or not, posting the ninth-best QBR in the league in both situations during his three years in the NFL, per ESPN Stats & Information. The problem for Wilson is that getting outside the pocket plays into Carolina’s hands. Having grown one of the fastest front sevens in all of football over the last three seasons, the Panthers are fully capable of maintaining pressure on rushing quarterbacks like Wilson. From 2012 to 2014, they posted the league’s 22nd-best opposing QBR when passers were in the pocket, but improved to the fourth-best QBR against on throws when quarterbacks were out of the pocket.1
Slowing down the running game and keeping Wilson from dominating on the edges is a good start. But to really keep the Seattle offense down, you have to take things a step further. That’s where some of the more difficult-to-sustain aspects of Carolina’s defensive performance appear.
Start with the Panthers’ ability to take the ball away from Seattle, a feat that most teams struggle to pull off. In 45 regular-season games against the rest of the NFL, the Seahawks have turned the ball over … 45 times. We can all do the math on that one, an even one turnover per game. Against the Panthers, Seattle has turned the ball over six times in three games. It’s obviously a small sample, even if you think about it on a possession-by-possession basis as opposed to game-by-game, but forcing turnovers twice as frequently as the rest of the league seems like a good way to attack the Seahawks.
What’s even better is turning them into pushovers in the red zone, which is the biggest reason the Panthers have been able to reduce the Seahawks offense to mush. During those three games, the Seahawks have made it into the red zone eight times.2 Those drives have produced one touchdown, five field goals, and two turnovers. That’s incredible. Seattle has scored touchdowns on more than 57 percent of its red zone drives against the rest of the league since 2012. The Seahawks have turned the ball over twice in eight red zone trips against the Carolina defense and exactly twice more in their other 162 red zone possessions against the rest of the league.
Those turnovers and field goals have eaten a very effective red zone offense alive. Those eight drives produced an average of just 2.8 points, which is staggeringly low. The worst red zone offense in football from 2012 to 2014 belongs to the Jaguars, and even they averaged 4.1 points per red zone trip. Ignore the Carolina games and Seattle’s offense has otherwise scored 5.1 points per possession in the red zone, which would be the fifth-best rate in football over the past three years.
Turning one of the league’s best red zone offenses into a sub-Fischian disaster just isn’t sustainable. Carolina really hasn’t had a dominant red zone defense over the past few seasons, ranking 14th in points allowed per trip (4.7) from 2012 to 2014, including the seventh-worst rate in the league at 5.1 points per possession this season. Even if you figure that the Panthers match up well against the Seahawks and that those matchups play up even further inside the 20-yard line, Seattle has been massively unlucky to come away with less than a field goal per excursion, and it’s not going to keep happening.
The other ways Carolina matches up well with Seattle seem more likely to stick, but even those are in doubt. Those 2012-13 Panthers teams included Greg Hardy, whose presence on the field meant that Russell Wilson would be stuck scrambling to a side of the field that included either Hardy or Charles Johnson on just about every single play. Now, while Kony Ealy, Mario Addison, and Wes Horton have looked better in recent weeks while filling for Hardy, the big two have been reduced to just Johnson.
The Panthers will also be without the presence of Star Lotulelei, their occasionally spectacular defensive tackle, who broke his foot in practice on Tuesday and will likely be out for the remainder of the playoffs. There’s a slim chance Lotulelei would be able to play if the Panthers made it to the Super Bowl, but he’s more than likely done.
His absence hurts the Panthers in a couple of ways. It’s not just that Lotulelei is better than the guys who will be replacing him, it’s that his absence also stretches those players into larger roles in which they can’t be as effective on a snap-by-snap basis. Kawann Short can blow people away when spotted correctly, but as an every-down defensive tackle, he’s less effective. The same is true of Dwan Edwards, who will likely draw the start in Lotulelei’s absence, and this injury means more of him and Colin Cole. Cole and Edwards also lack Lotulelei’s ability to pass rush from the interior, which will also make it harder to bring down Wilson. The Seahawks will also get center Max Unger back from a high ankle sprain, giving them a possible mismatch on the interior when running the football.
Carolina may also be without wideout Philly Brown, who went down with a shoulder injury just before halftime in the win over Arizona and will be questionable for Saturday. Brown basically represents the downfield speed element of the Carolina offense, and if he can’t go, the Panthers would likely be stuck promoting former Jets monolith Stephen Hill from their practice squad, which wouldn’t be much of a replacement. And if the Seahawks aren’t afraid of getting beat deep, they’re just going to squeeze the underneath routes and force Cam Newton to fire throws into impossible windows on every single dropback.
Obviously, the best way for the Panthers to ensure that they’re not stuck throwing on third-and-long is to run the ball effectively, which will be a tough ask against one of the league’s most dominant run defenses. Seattle finished second in run defense DVOA this season and held Carolina to just 3.7 yards per carry during the last game between these two in October.
That mostly came by shutting down Newton, who carried the ball 12 times for just 24 yards, but the Seahawks have admittedly struggled some against the read-option this season. It’s a small sample, but on 44 zone-read carries in 2014, the Seahawks have allowed 209 rushing yards, an average of 4.75 yards per carry. That’s 18th in the league. The Panthers ranked among the league leaders in both read-option rush attempts (104, the fourth-most in football) and read-option yards per carry (5.1, fifth in the league among teams that ran it 30 times or more) this season.
So, if you’re a Panthers fan hoping to come away with a stunning upset, that’s your game plan. Run the ball well, probably with the zone read. Keep Russell Wilson & Co. off the field. When their offense does get on the field, plug up the running game at the line of scrimmage, use a disciplined pass rush along with Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly to swallow up Wilson’s scrambles and throws outside the pocket, force a couple of takeaways, and hold the Seahawks to red zone field goals.
The problem for the Panthers is that they find themselves in the same boat vacated by the Cardinals last week: Their margin for error is so, so slim. The Panthers were able to get away with Jerricho Cotchery locking up and crashing in the middle of a route to lead to an interception last week. They got away with Brenton Bersin fielding punts like a Little Leaguer handling grounders. They got away with Graham Gano missing a field goal. They got away with Cam Newton fumbling in the second half and nearly throwing a pick-six in the first one. They got away with it when Larry Fitzgerald ran free into the end zone twice because Ryan Lindley was like a Little Leag— you get the idea.
They can’t do that this week. If they turn the ball over a couple of times and give the Seahawks short fields like the ones they gave to Arizona, the Panthers are probably doomed. If they’re sloppy on special teams and let receivers run open downfield, it’s going to be a very long day.
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Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
The Ravens can also claim some measure of recent competitiveness against the Patriots. Baltimore has made three playoff trips into Foxborough as an underdog during the last five seasons and come away with two double-digit wins and a last-second defeat that required a dropped pass3 in the end zone and a 32-yard shanked field goal. Outscoring the Patriots by 31 points at home across three playoff games is a decidedly impressive feat.
And yet I don’t think it means as much here as it might in terms of the Carolina-Seattle matchup. Those Ravens-Pats games come across a much longer period of time; nothing screams “Irrelevant!” to the current NFL more than a game that started with an 83-yard touchdown run from Ray Rice, as the playoff game between these two teams did during the 2009 postseason. It also seems wrong to exclude the four regular-season games these teams played during that same stretch of time from any analysis, and the roles there were reversed; the Patriots won three of those four games, including a 41-7 shellacking in Week 16 last year that dramatically dashed Baltimore’s playoff hopes. The one game New England lost came on a last-second field goal that might have actually been a miss.
Combine those regular-season and postseason performances since 2009 and you get a relatively even recent history between these two teams. In seven games, five of which have been played in New England, the Ravens are 3-4. They were underdogs by a combined 18 points across the seven contests and actually were outscored by a total of 11 points. Things have gone just about how you might have expected on a cumulative basis. Stories of the past will surround this weekend’s game, but I doubt they tell us very much at all.
It’s not fair to say that this game hinges entirely upon how Elvis Dumervil, Pernell McPhee, and Terrell Suggs play. Joe Flacco could melt down or Tom Brady could blow out his knee on the opening series, and every other word from here on out could mean absolutely nothing. That’s possible. It’s hard to think of a single aspect of this matchup deeper at its crux, though, than Baltimore’s premier pass-rushers and how they can fundamentally change the matchup between these two teams when New England has the ball. My colleague Robert Mays did a great job of explaining how Baltimore gets pressure with its rushers yesterday, and you should read that before going any further.
Life would be very easy for the Ravens if they did not have to blitz Tom Brady very frequently during this game. Of course, blitzing once in a while is good, if only to throw a quarterback off, or force a shorter throw to a hot receiver, or try to give yourself a better chance of creating a takeaway. Baltimore simply can’t drop seven or eight into coverage on every play. But given that the Ravens were starting Lardarius Webb and a group of journeymen at cornerback last week and the Steelers spent the entire game picking on Webb, you can understand why the Ravens would want to commit as many resources to coverage as possible. The numbers illustrate how unfavorable that concept is for Baltimore.
First, there’s the fact that there might not be a quarterback who adjusts better to blitzes than Brady within this Patriots offense. For whatever weaknesses he might have now at age 37, Brady’s ability to read defenses before and at the snap and make quick, safe throws to open receivers remains unquestioned. He’s phenomenal against blitzes, and the Josh McDaniels–led scheme always seems to have a Julian Edelman or a Shane Vereen open for a safe, efficient completion. Brady is seventh in the league in QBR (at 73.1) when teams don’t blitz him, but when they send pressure, Brady’s 87.8 QBR is the best in all of football.
Over the past five years, the only passer with a better QBR against blitzes than Brady is Aaron Rodgers, and nobody else is within 10 QBR points of Rodgers. It’s just terrifying: Against the blitz over that time frame, Brady has thrown 72 touchdowns against six interceptions. He has a 12-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio against the blitz, and the only other guy above 4-to-1 is Rodgers. You just do not want to blitz this man unless you absolutely have to.
Getting pressure on Brady is absolutely important; he was 20th in the league in QBR when he was hit or under duress this season. The Ravens want to get pressure on Brady without having to commit serious manpower to doing so, which is why Dumervil, McPhee, and Suggs are so important. If they can win their one-on-one battles and allow the Ravens to get pressure by rushing four, they can clog up Brady’s throwing lanes, read the hot routes that Brady’s relying upon, and make quick tackles for modest gains.
When Baltimore managed to get pressure without blitzing this season, opposing quarterbacks did not fare well. How bad were they? Opposing quarterbacks went 15-of-52 for 158 yards with five interceptions and 32 sacks. They posted a passer rating of 0.2. That’s not a typo. Zero-point-two. No quarterback has thrown 10 passes in a game and posted a passer rating of 0.2 or worse since Chris Redman in 2007. That Andy Dalton game when he went 10-of-33 with three picks against the Browns? 2.0. Blows 0.2 out of the water. That Ryan Lindley playoff game we just saw when I was genuinely afraid the Cardinals wouldn’t let him fly home on the team plane? A robust 44.3.
You might figure that all defenses look better when they’re getting pressure without blitzing, and they do, but nobody comes close to Baltimore. The Patriots have the second-best passer rating in the league in the same category, and they’re at 14.6. The league average in that spot for passers is 52.7. Throw in the sack yardage and the Ravens actually gain yardage — 0.4 yards per dropback, or roughly what their running game did in 2013 — when they pull off the pressure-without-blitzing trick. Nobody else in football can say that.
Putting pressure on somebody else is a good way to mask your own insecurities, and sure enough, that’s exactly what the Ravens do when they apply heat to opposing passers. Teams basically can’t throw downfield when the opposing team gets pressure on defense. On throws that travel 15 yards or more in the air, the passer rating for quarterbacks when they’re not pressured is a robust 92.2, roughly in the Ryan Tannehill/Eli Manning range. (That’s better than it sounds.) When they are pressured, though, that falls all the way to 63.6, which is three points worse than Blaine Gabbert’s career passer rating. It’s a distressing gap.
Baltimore’s biggest weakness on defense, bar none, is dealing with teams when they throw downfield. By any measure you can find, the Ravens are downright abysmal against deep passes.4 By QBR, they’re the third-worst pass defense in the league, allowing a 99.3 figure to opposing quarterbacks. By passer rating, the 110.4 mark they put up against those deep passes is the fifth-worst rate in the league.
The Ravens don’t do a notable job of encouraging or suppressing those passes, finishing right around league average among defenses in terms of deep pass frequency, but they get through and turn into big gains far more frequently than the Ravens would care to see. Teams complete 51.2 percent of those 15-plus-yard throws against the Ravens, more than against any other team remaining in this year’s playoffs.
The good news for them is that the Patriots aren’t really a team built to throw downfield. They don’t have the personnel at wide receiver to really challenge teams deep, with those duties often falling to Brian Tyms or even Brandon LaFell, who has been limited in practice this week with a foot injury. Concerns about Brady’s arm strength from earlier this season are overstated, but it’s been fair to say that the primary strength of Brady’s game has been his accuracy on short and intermediate throws as opposed to his ability to sling the ball downfield, especially in the post–Randy Moss era. Brady is just 21st in the league in QBR on throws 15 or more yards downfield, where his 88.7 passer rating is 14th among qualifying quarterbacks.
Naturally, you won’t be surprised to hear that Brady makes his hay on those shorter routes. On passes that travel 0 to 14 yards in the air, Brady’s a wizard, finishing third in the league in both passer rating and QBR this season. The problem for Brady is that the Ravens are good at stopping those throws; Baltimore has posted the sixth-best passer rating in the NFL on those attempts, albeit with a less impressive 16th-placed rank in QBR. The easiest way to beat the Ravens is to throw it deep. The Patriots won’t necessarily need a bomb on Saturday to beat Baltimore, but it sure wouldn’t hurt matters if Tyms found his way past the likes of Darian Stewart and Will Hill for a huge chunk of yardage at some point.
Ravens fans will likely eye tape of the disastrous Patriots loss to the Chiefs in Week 4 and hope that they can emulate that on Saturday. It makes some sense; the Chiefs have a pair of dominant edge rushers, as do the Ravens, with a couple of bigger bullies in the middle, as Haloti Ngata and the returning Timmy Jernigan stand in for Dontari Poe. The Chiefs use their pass rush to compensate for a middling secondary, and the Ravens would be happy to do the same.
You could see how Baltimore might emulate that approach, but the Patriots haven’t been overwhelmed by teams with great pass rushes every time they’ve gone out this year. The Bills didn’t give New England much trouble when the Patriots scored 37 on them in Week 6, and while Buffalo dominated in Week 17, that was mostly against backups. The Jets manufactured a pass rush almost solely out of Rex Ryan’s dark dreams and slowed Brady in Week 16, but the Patriots were fine against them in a short week in Week 7, and the Jets don’t have the sort of edge dominance that the Ravens and Chiefs share.
With the Patriots having settled on a far superior offensive line combination and having seen the return of the real Rob Gronkowski after that Chiefs game, it’s going to be tough for the Ravens to dominate in the same way that the Chiefs did in September. Not impossible, mind you. Just tough.
In a way, it’ll be more intriguing to see how the Patriots decide to match up on defense against Baltimore’s passing attack, a unit that lines up with the vaunted New England secondary in strange, awkward ways.
Start with Brandon Browner, whose mix of size and strength has been a welcome addition to the Patriots secondary this season. Browner is a great matchup against physical wideouts who focus on winning at the line of scrimmage and maintaining their timing throughout routes … so whom does he match up with here? Steve Smith is not a great fit for him, because Smith is physical but far shorter than Browner. There’s a point where having a half-foot of height on a receiver simply isn’t an advantage, because it’s so much easier for the receiver to gain a lower center of gravity; tall cornerbacks have never been able to eat Smith up. The logical move for the Patriots would be to stick Darrelle Revis on Smith around the field.
The alternative is putting Browner on Torrey Smith, which is a disaster waiting to happen. As I mentioned on Monday, the other Smith has been a defensive pass interference penalty-drawing machine this year, drawing 11 flags for 229 yards this season before adding another 32-yarder in the first round of the playoffs. He has nearly twice as many DPI penalties and yardage drawn as anybody else in football. And Browner’s been a penalty machine for the Patriots, picking up a whopping 15 penalties (including five pass interference calls) in just nine games with New England.
So, Browner on Smith seems dangerous. A third option might be the best way for the Patriots to go: putting Browner on Owen Daniels. Tight ends have been the biggest weakness for the New England pass defense this season; the Patriots rank 17th or better in DVOA against all types of receivers besides tight ends, where they are the third-worst team in football. Daniels is very clearly the third target in a three-man group of receivers for Baltimore; he has 78 targets in 15 games, and the next most-targeted receiver for the Ravens is Kamar Aiken, who has just 33 in 16 games. Browner is far more comfortable on the sidelines than he is working in the slot or around the middle of the field, but by process of elimination, it would be best to use him on Daniels if the Patriots plan on playing a lot of man coverage. That would leave Kyle Arrington, likely with safety help on most plays, against Torrey Smith.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, the Patriots simply don’t have the sort of problems with downfield throws that Baltimore looked forward to exploiting against the Steelers. The Patriots are basically static against all kinds of passes. They’re 12th in the league in passer rating on throws of 15 yards or more downfield … and 14th on throws that travel 0-14 yards in the air.
Flacco arrested a late-season slump and produced an 85.9 QBR in an impressive performance last week, the third-best QBR he’s achieved in his postseason career behind the Super Bowl win over the 49ers and the wild-card performance that preceded it at home versus the Colts. He was only 1-of-4 on passes 40 yards or more in the air, but those passes produced 81 yards and the pass interference call for Smith.
The biggest problem for Flacco was pressure, as fill-in left tackle James Hurst allowed no fewer than six hurries against a hardly impressive pass rush. Starting left tackle Eugene Monroe is suggesting that he’s on pace to return this week, and while Monroe hasn’t been dominant this season, he would be a comfortable upgrade on the undrafted free agent starting in his place.
New England, on the other hand, can count on a healthy Chandler Jones. Jones quietly made his way back into the lineup at the end of the season, nabbing a sack and a half during his Week 15 return against the Dolphins before adding two hits while playing every single defensive snap against the Jets in Week 16. Jones played only a limited number of snaps in Week 17, but he’s now gotten some game rust out of his system and should be fresher for the postseason than he would be in most years, given how he plays virtually every snap for New England when healthy. His matchup — whether versus a gimpy Monroe or an overmatched Hurst — could be just as important as Suggs versus Sebastian Vollmer.
On a more holistic, larger-game approach, I wonder if the Ravens try to construct an offensive game plan built around running the ball and trying to retain possession while playing a field-position game. It fits several of their strengths well. By holding on to the football and reducing the tempo of the game, Baltimore would allow its pass-rushers to stay fresh for as long as possible and not subject them to a 13- or 14-possession game. Any play in which the Ravens secondary is on the sideline is a good one for John Harbaugh.
A run-heavy game plan might also allow the Ravens to starve the Patriots of critical turnovers while playing a field-position game that they’re better suited to win. While both these teams have very good special teams, the Ravens had the league’s best punting unit this season, with Sam Koch & Co. producing 17.9 points of field position value above average. New England gets above-average punt return work from the combination of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, but most of what they do best comes on field goals and kickoffs from Stephen Gostkowski.
The one concern I would have about that game plan, were I the Ravens, is that Baltimore’s style of running the football doesn’t really fit New England’s weaknesses. The Patriots are a disciplined bunch that don’t allow many big plays, but they can really be exploited in short yardage by bigger lines. The Patriots defense had the league’s worst success rate on runs in “power” situations per Football Outsiders, and stuffed opposing runners behind the line for a loss more than only four other teams.
The Ravens can’t really do that. They’re running a zone-blocking scheme that isn’t optimized for power, and they don’t have the horses to really maul the opposing defensive front into submitting. Baltimore’s offensive line is the fifth-worst line in football in terms of “power” situations, moving up to seventh-worst in terms of stuffs in the backfield for a loss. It would help to get Monroe back and possibly shift Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda back to his natural position from right tackle.
After all that, though, I still think about the Baltimore pass rush and figure that unit decides this game. If the Patriots do enough to keep Suggs and Dumervil off of Brady, it should be a long day for the Ravens in Foxborough. And if the fearsome duo on the edge for Baltimore manage to pull away and have a field day against Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, well, it shouldn’t take too much time beyond them to find Brady. The pass rush might have won Baltimore its rivalry matchup with Pittsburgh last week; this time around, it’ll have to play a bigger, more valuable game.