How passing and rushing affect winning in the NFL

bill_belichickBefore the Super Bowl, Bill Belichick told his Giants defense to let Thurman Thomas rush for 100 yards.

As David Halberstam writes in Education of a Coach, it was a tough sell before the 1991 Super Bowl against Buffalo. The New York Giants played a physical defense that prided itself on not allowing 100 yard rushers.

No matter, the short, stout coach looked straight into the eyes of Lawrence Taylor and Pepper Johnson and said, “You guys have to believe me. If Thomas runs for a hundred yards, we win this game.”

Just in case his players didn’t listen, Belichick took it upon himself to ensure Thomas got his yards. He took out a defensive lineman and linebacker and replaced these large bodies with two defensive backs. In football lingo, the Giants played a 2-3-6 defense designed to struggle against the run.

Did Bill Belichick go insane? I certainly thought so when I first read this story years ago.

However, analytics is on Belichick’s side. Let me explain.

Visual shows the importance of passing over rushing

When it comes to winning in the NFL, passing is king. Rushing hardly matters.

To quantify this, our football obsessed culture must look past misleading statistics such as rush yards per game. Teams with the lead tend to run the ball to take time off the clock. Any team can rush for 100 yards if they run it 50 times.

To measure true skill, it is better to look at efficiency metrics like yards per attempt. A team can’t fake their way to 5 yards per carry by running the ball more.

Here, efficiency for passing and rushing is defined as yards gained per attempt on offense minus yards allowed per attempt on defense. Higher values indicate more team strength. Sacks count as pass attempts, and these negative yards lower pass efficiency on offense.

The visual shows the pass and rush efficiency during the regular season for all NFL playoff teams from 2003 through 2012.

nfl_pass_rush

From the left panel, playoff teams excel in passing, both throwing the ball on offense and preventing the pass on defense. Only 15 of 120 playoff teams in this era allowed more yards per pass attempt than they gained.

The visual also highlights teams that played in the Super Bowl. Eight of the ten Super Bowl champions were among the NFL’s elite in pass efficiency. However, excellence in the air does not guarantee playoff success. The New York Giants in 2007 and Baltimore in 2012 won the Super Bowl despite subpar pass efficiency.

Rushing hardly matters in the NFL

While the importance of passing in the NFL will not surprise anyone, the insignificance of rushing might. The visual for rush efficiency shows playoff teams as a random scatter of positive and negative values for their regular season statistics. A strong run game on offense and defense does not help a team make the playoffs.

Moreover, teams with a high rush efficiency do not suddenly become clutch in the playoffs. Almost half of the teams that played in the Super Bowl allowed more yards per carry than they gained. In 2006, Indianapolis won the Super Bowl while having the worst rush efficiency in the NFL. Green Bay in 2010 and the New York Giants in 2011 weren’t much better.

A guessing game of a team’s wins

Running the ball does not affect winning as much as you think. To illustrate this point, consider this guessing game. Suppose you want to guess how many games a team will win during the regular season. Without any other data, it makes sense to guess 8, the average number of wins in a 16 game season.

From 2003 through 2012, this estimate would be wrong by 3.1 wins. In technical jargon, 3.1 is the standard deviation of actual wins from the guess of 8. In normal people language, it says 2 of 3 teams will be within 3.1 wins of the guess. About two thirds of NFL teams won between 5 and 11 games between 2003 and 2012.

With the rush efficiency for each team, how much better does your guess get? The right panel of the visual below shows how rush efficiency relates to wins for every NFL team from 2003 through 2012. Simple linear regression gives the best fit line through the data.

nfl_pass_rush_scatter

The regression line gives a new guess about the number of games a team will win. For example, suppose a team has a rush efficiency of 0.6 yards per carry. Instead of guessing 8 wins for this team, the line gives 8.7 wins for this team.

How much better are these new guesses? Not much. The error only drops from 3.1 wins to 3.03 wins. In technical jargon, rush efficiency explains only 4.4% of the variance in wins. You might as well guess randomly.

The results get better using pass efficiency, as shown in the left panel. The error in estimating wins drops from 3.1 to 1.96. Pass efficiency explains 62% of the variance in wins in the NFL. The strong relationship is clear from the visual.

In college football, rush efficiency correlates more strongly with wins than in the NFL. Teams like Alabama, Stanford and Wisconsin have won with a power running game and a physical front seven on defense. The insignificance of running the ball is unique to the NFL.

Analytics gives a broad view of how passing and rushing affect winning. But to dig deeper, let’s look at specific teams and their strengths in these areas.

Indianapolis Colts

Under the leadership of GM Bill Polian and QB Peyton Manning, the Colts had a remarkable run from 2003 through 2010. They won at least 12 games each year before slacking off with 10 wins in 2010.

They achieved success through the air, ranking in the top 8 in pass efficiency each year. Peyton Manning and his offense played the bigger role, but the pass defense helped out some years. The Colts ranked in the top 10 in pass defense (yards allowed per attempt) from 2007 through 2009.

However, Indianapolis was really bad in the run game. Only once in this era (2007) did they gain more yards per carry than they allowed. As mentioned before, they were dead last in the NFL in rush efficiency in 2006 when they beat Chicago in the Super Bowl.

New England Patriots

New England won 125 games, 2 Super Bowls and played in 2 others during the 10 seasons covered by the visual. They followed the same script as Indianapolis: strong in passing, weak in rushing.

From 2003 through 2012, New England ranked in the top 10 in pass efficiency in each year except 2008 and 2012. In 2008, QB Tom Brady got hurt in the first game of the season. New England ended the season 13th in yards gained per pass attempt and did not make the playoffs, the only time this happened during these 10 years.

However, New England has never cracked the top 10 in rush efficiency. Coach Bill Belichick might not have seen the data presented here, but he gets the futility of rushing in the NFL. This understanding extends as far back as his days as defensive coordinator for the Giants.

Indianapolis and New England have built their teams around passing at the expense of rushing. They, along with New Orleans of recent seasons, have had success in winning games and Super Bowls. Now let’s look at teams that excel at rushing.

Minnesota Vikings

More than any other team, the Vikings dominate the ground game. They feature RB Adrian Peterson on offense and have tackles Pat and Kevin Williams clogging up the middle on defense. For the 6 years between 2007 and 2012, Minnesota has finished 1st in rush efficiency 4 of those years.

However, this strength has led to ups and downs in wins. Minnesota went 3-13 in 2011 despite leading the NFL in rush efficiency. The next season, they led the NFL again behind a monster season from Peterson, who made a remarkable return from knee surgery. The Vikings had 10-6 record that season.

The Viking’s best season over this stretch came in 2009. They finished 12th in rush efficiency that season. The difference? A QB named Brett Farve came out of retirement to play for Minnesota. The Vikings finished 7th in yards gained per pass attempt. They went 12-4 and came within a late turnover against New Orleans of playing in the Super Bowl.

San Francisco

The Niners started winning games when coach Jim Harbaugh became coach in 2011. However, they had their strengths before he arrived. Behind DE Justin Smith and LB Patrick Willis, San Francisco had an elite run defense. From 2007 through 2012, they never finished worse than 8th in yards allowed per carry.

This run defense didn’t help them win much the first 4 seasons, as the Niners won only 26 games. The pass defense never finished better than 15th during this time.

When Harbaugh arrived in 2011, San Francisco drafted LB Aldon Smith, a pass rush monster out of Missouri. They also signed CB Carlos Rogers, who had the first Pro Bowl season of his career in 2011. The Niners have finished 9th and 3rd in pass defense in 2011 and 2012 respectively. This resulted in 24 wins during these two seasons.

How to evaluate NFL statistics

In Super Bowl XXV, Bill Belichick’s plan to let Thurman Thomas rush for 100 yards worked, maybe too well. Against a small defense designed to slow down the pass, Thomas ran for 135 yards on 15 carries, a staggering 9 yards per carry. In the second half, he broke off a 31 yard run for a touchdown.

The game ended when Bills kicker Scott Norwood sent a field goal attempt wide right. The Giants won the Super Bowl 20-19.

The Giants did not win the game solely because of Belichick’s defensive plan. The offense generated two long scoring drives in the second half that took time off the clock. And I would bet my life savings Belichick did not want his defense to allow that 31 yard touchdown run to Thomas.

But, as Halberstam discusses in Education of a Coach, Belichick did want the Bills to pick up small gains on the ground if it meant keeping Jim Kelly from throwing the ball. He understood that rushing means almost nothing to winning in the NFL.

If you’re going to remember anything from this article, it should be this: look at a team’s passing instead of rushing numbers to determine whether they will win games.

Grantland, Betting Dork and 3 football predictions

I got into some NFL football this week.

First, I agreed to appear on Betting Dork, the podcast of Gill Alexander. During the NFL season, he invites a guest to appear with his regular round table that talks NFL games. Gill is a friend and all around great guy; dork might be the last word I would use to describe him. You can listen to the podcast each week here.

Second, an opportunity at Grantland came up. They made an excellent video on Kevin Kelley, the high school football coach in Arkansas that always goes for it on 4th down and always onside kicks. They wanted a blog post to accompany the video, so they asked me this: if not punting is one revolution in football analytics, what’s the next big revolution?

My first thought was that NFL teams should stop running the ball.

While this might seem crazy, numbers back up the argument. Including negative yards from sacks, NFL teams throw for 6.10 yards per pass attempt. On the ground, they only gain 4.17 yards per rush.

Moreover, over the last 10 NFL seasons, there is no correlation between rush efficiency, measured by yards per rush on offense, and winning. I found this lack of correlation shocking. The NFL is truly a quarterback’s league. Winning teams can throw the ball downfield while preventing their opposition from doing the same.

The article left a lot of room for further analysis, as people noted in the comments. Pass efficiency might decline with a higher percentage of passes. (Note that I do not think this is a given, especially with good play calling.) There’s also a higher risk for turnovers on pass plays. Hopefully, Grantland will let me follow up on these thoughts later.

You can read the article here. Be sure to watch the awesome video at the bottom on Kevin Kelley’s Pulaski Bruins.

I do think passing matters most in the NFL, especially if you want to predict the future. Yards per pass attempt correlates with winning even more than yards per play, the key stat I look at in college football.

This analysis is based on my NFL yards per pass attempt adjusted for strength of schedule. I’ll make all these numbers available soon.

Of course, I couldn’t resist talking about a college game at the end.

Kansas City at Denver

Kansas City has been one of the luckiest NFL teams this season. They have played a soft schedule and have benefitted from turnovers. The Chiefs needed 2 defensive touchdowns to beat Buffalo 23-13 in their last game.

So I was shocked when my numbers came down on the side of the Chiefs. The line has held steady at Denver at 8, while yards per pass attempt predicts Denver by 5. What gives?

I think people understand the problems with Kansas City. ESPN ran a piece on how the Chiefs were the most troubled 9-0 team in the history of the NFL. And I think that’s right.

However, people might be missing how bad Denver’s defense is. They are 28th in my pass defense rankings, which is just terrible for a Super Bowl contender. They have been a bit better the last 3 games since Von Miller has returned.

Overall, Denver gets its edge in this game from Peyton Manning and it’s top ranked pass offense against Kansas City’s 6th ranked pass defense. Denver has better than even odds to win.

However, don’t be surprised to see the Chiefs go to 10-0, especially if they can generate a pass rush against Manning and get some more turnover luck.

Minnesota at Seattle

Seattle is a legit Super Bowl contender. Minnesota is a poor team that features Christian Ponder at QB. However, a line that favors Seattle by 12 seems like too much. Yards per pass attempt predicts a 8.6 point win for Seattle. Remember, this prediction includes the throwing performance of both Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman.

Moreover, the run game could play a role in this game. Minnesota has RB Adrian Peterson, one of the most explosive players in the game. Their rush attack, ranked 5th by raw yards per rush, faces a Seattle defense ranked 21st in rush defense. While I don’t recommend building a team around a RB like Peterson, his presence can certainly affect this game in favor of Minnesota.

Georgia at Auburn

This game plays a surprising role in the national championship race. A Georgia win (with an Alabama win over Mississippi State) locks up the SEC West for Alabama. Auburn would have 2 conferences losses, and it wouldn’t matter if they beat Alabama in 2 weeks.

However, if Auburn wins, then their game with Alabama decides the SEC West. Then an Auburn win puts Alabama out of the title picture… like I predicted in Grantland a month ago.

Can Auburn win? My team rankings predict a 6 point win for Auburn. However, these rankings can be heavily impacted by turnovers, and Georgia has 7 more give aways than take aways this season. Had they performed better in this department, Georgia probably beats Missouri in their key SEC East battle.

Yards per plays predicts a Georgia win by 2 based on the strength of their offense. Despite a rash of injuries to key skill players, QB Aaron Murray has led the Bulldogs to 6th in my offensive rankings by yards per play. The line favors Auburn by 3.5, so expect a tight game that could come down to a last second field goal.

Thanks for reading.

NFL Rankings, Week 5

Okay New England, we get it.  You’re good at football.  And St. Louis, it is likely that you’re already thinking more about the race to acquire Andrew Luck than the race to make the playoffs.  But today I’m not interested in the highs and lows of The Power Rank, I’m taking a shot at it’s sweet, juicy center.

To get a look at what truly constitutes the center of the Power Rank grouping, I used a mathematical formula for Standard Deviation, something that defines the variation from the mean (or average) in a data set.  If you’re enough of a nerd to not stick your tongue out at that definition and want to know more, you can look at Wikipedia’s explanation.

If you’re like me and most math classes made you go crossed-eyed and start drooling on yourself, all you really have to understand is that the bulk of a group (about 68%) falls within 1 standard deviation of the mean on either side, and that the bulk of the remainder (about 27%, for a total of 95% of the whole) falls within 2 standard deviations of the mean.

In other words, teams whose rating falls within 1 standard deviation of the mean (always 0.0 for the Power Rank) are all horribly mediocre.  Ok, that’s my inner pessimist coming out.  A more optimistic view for Eagles and Falcons fans might be to say that they are “on the bubble” when it comes to elite NFL teams (or horrible NFL teams, but we won’t dwell on that).  On the other hand, teams that exceed 2 standard deviations of distance from the mean are truly in a class of their own, either high class or low class depending on which side of the curve they are on.

That’s about as much explaining as I can do, although further questions about the mechanics of this process can be emailed to Ed, who will no doubt be able to give you a thorough explanation of the math that goes into this process.  For my part, I just plug numbers into a free online calculation program and analyze the output.  Ah… sweet, sweet technology.

On to football.

The standard deviation in this week’s power rank is 5.49.  That means that the bulk of teams will fall between 5.49 and -5.49, almost all teams will fall between 10.98 and -10.98, and teams beyond those ratings are truly special.

Congratulations to the Patriots (#1, 15.79) and the Packers (#2, 11.31) for pushing the limits and existing beyond the norm.  Perhaps even more congratulations are deserved by St. Louis (#32, -9.89) for not exceeding the norm…

Very few teams fall between the first and second standard deviations.  On the high side only Baltimore, Detroit, and New Orleans (by a hair) make the grade as especially good teams, whereas on the low end Denver, Arizona, Cleveland, Kansas City, Seattle, and St. Louis all currently qualify as truly not very good teams.

That leaves the other 21 teams in the true statistical middle of the road.  Being in the middle isn’t all that bad, as you are supposedly as close to the top as you are to the bottom.  This is great news for 2010’s weekly bottom dweller Carolina, who finds themselves just within the boundaries of that first standard deviation, but not great news for teams hoping to return strong and make another playoff run like Pittsburgh, Atlanta, or Philadelphia.  Most importantly for these middling teams, their current ratings are not a death warrant for the season, they have no cause for alarm and no need whatsoever to join in the chase for the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes.

A few things to consider for these middle teams:

1.  The current standard deviation is almost 1 point bigger than it was at the end of last year when it ended up at 4.59.

2.  At the end of last season The Power Rank was a little more balanced with one team above 2 standard deviations (New England) and one team below (Carolina).  Currently the two teams exceeding 2 standard deviations from the mean are both on the high side. Most likely, either New England or Green Bay will fall back into the sweet center during the season.

3.  When one (or both) of the juggernauts fall they will bring that standard deviation down with them.  This will cut some teams out of of the running for average status (look out Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Carolina!) but on the upside a few teams may be thrust into greatness without needing to earn it (it may finally be the year for Houston or San Diego to go all the way).

4.  When the standard deviation shrinks a couple struggling teams may also become hopeless.  But come on, we are only one quarter of the way through the season!  Now is the time for Vikings fans to Ponder over whether or not they can finish out 12-4, Miami fans to Marshall their courage, and Colts fans to…  oh, who am I kidding?  Without Manning they have lost their identity…  they should focus on battling St. Louis and Kansas City in the race for the #1 draft pick in 2012.

NFL Preview

After months of drama, it’s time to forget Roethlisberger’s indiscretions, Favre’s indecision, and Al Davis’ incompetence and start the NFL season. Here is the Power Rank’s 2010 NFL preview.

AFC East.

If you’re like me you’ve been watching HBO’s Hard Knocks and head coach Rex Ryan has intimidated you into believing that his Jets are going to repeat their playoff run. Darrelle Revis (CB, 24) has a contract, Ladanian Tomlinson (RB, 21) is in town, and Mark Sanchez (QB, 6) has a season of experience under his belt. Add this to an underrated receiving corps and you’ll be hearing lots of “J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS!” cheers this winter.

The division doesn’t stop in New York though. Randy Moss (WR, 81) and Tom Brady (QB, 12) are getting older but they’re still a major threat to any defense and head coach Bill Belichick can be expected to field a competitive team as he always does, even if they won’t be as dominant as they have been in the past.

The Miami Dolphins and their wildcat offensive scheme can be expected to make a splash again this year with the addition of receiving phenom (and headcase) Brandon Marshall (WR, 19). It will be interesting to see how Ronnie Brown (RB, 23) and Ricky Williams (RB, 34) will perform when teams can’t stack the box against them and their dominant offensive tackle Jake Long (T, 77).

The Bills have done little to improve, and their record will show it this year.

AFC North.

It’s the Raven’s year. Ray Rice (RB, 27) is looking to improve on a great season and Joe Flacco (QB, 5) is expected to break out with new targets like Anquan Boldin (WR, 81) and TJ Houshmandzadeh (WR). With a rock solid Greg Mattison coached defense led by Ray Lewis (MLB, 52) to keep opponents at bay, the Ravens are looking to play a game in February this year.

The Steelers and the Bengals will be looking to spoil the Raven’s Superbowl dreams with teams loaded with talent. The Bengals offense of Carson Palmer (QB, 5), Terrell Owens (WR, 81), and Chad Ochocinco (WR, 85), reads like an All-Star program… from the 2004 season. If they can collectively shake off the dust they will be a killer trio, but don’t expect this scenario to be likely. Pittsburgh enters the season without Big Ben (QB, 7) and in disarray offensively. But you can’t count out a Pittsburgh defense that’s 2 seasons removed from Superbowl glory. Expect some late season heroics that will see the men in black in the hunt for the postseason.

The Browns have been making moves to improve their team, but with Montario Hardesty (RB, 31) shredding his ACL they seem to be the wrong moves. At least they got rid of Brady Quinn though, right?

AFC South.

The Colts haven’t gone anywhere. Peyton Manning (QB, 18) will continue to be the best in the NFL (and possibly history) and he’s got all of the same targets that he had last year, plus Anthony Gonzalez (WR, 11). The really bad news for Colts haters: Bob Sanders (SS, 21) is back and is looking good in the defensive backfield.

Don’t expect to see anyone else take this division, but don’t be surprised if there’s at least one and maybe even two wildcards coming from the South. The Texans are a lot of analyst’s breakout pick this year, but they have been for the last few years running. Matt Schaub (QB,8) has the tools on the outside led by Andre Johnson (WR, 80), but injuries and running back controversy may continue to plague this team.

The Titans return with Chris Johnson (RB, 28) hoping to repeat and improve on his 2000 yard season, but that may prove difficult with the loss of blocker Kevin Mawae (C). Vince Young (QB, 10) rounds out the offensive attack that will keep the Titans competitive with any team in the NFL.

The Jaguars’ explosive back Maurice Jones-Drew (RB, 32) is expected to start the season healthy, but preseason injuries leave doubts about his effectiveness this year. With little passing attack and a lackluster defense, expect the Jags to stay in limbo this year.

AFC West.

Yet again, it’s going to be all Chargers this year in the AFC West. Phillip Rivers (QB, 17) will continue to throw touchdowns with or without Vincent Jackson (WR, 83), and running back Ryan Matthews (RB, 24) from Fresno State seems to be everyone’s pick for Rookie of the Year. Don’t forget the explosive and versatile Darren Sproles (RB, 43) and the solid defense that will help the Chargers slide into what may be the easiest playoff slot in the NFL this season.

Let’s look at the other quarterbacks in this divison: Cassel (KC), Orton/Tebow/Quinn (DEN), and Jason Campbell (OAK). Some people are big on Jason Campbell (QB,8) to finally breakout, others think Matt Cassel (QB, 7) will regain his Patriot glory… don’t buy it. These guys are mediocre at best and the only target worth mentioning on all three teams is Dwayne Bowe (WR, 82) of Kansas City. Don’t expect to see any of these teams in January this year. If you’re like me, you’re just hoping that rookie Tim Tebow (QB, 15) will get a chance to skipper the Broncos and show what his athleticism and poor mechanics can do.

NFC East.

The best division in the NFL is just too close to call. The Cowboys bring back Tony Romo (QB, 9), a stacked backfield, a nasty defense, and a possible future star in Dez Bryant (WR, 88). The Eagles return with their signature defensive power and a very young but very talented offense led by Kevin Kolb (QB, 4), DeSean Jackson (WR, 10), Jeremy Maclin (WR, 18), and Brent Celek (TE, 87). The Giants didn’t get the better of the Manning brothers but Eli (QB, 10) is a solid performer with good targets in Steve Smith (WR, 12) and Hakeem Nicks (WR, 88), and the third strong defense in the division.

The only team the won’t be on top of this royal rumble is Washington. The Redskins’ strategy of overspending on aging stars will continue to haunt them as Donovan McNabb (QB, 5) and Clinton Portis (RB, 26) will not live up to their 2004 stat lines, which will only be a shock to the Washington front office.

NFC North.

As a Packer fan, it pains me to say the you can expect to see more purple this January. Brett Favre (QB, 4) is back for one reason, and that is to win a Superbowl. The hall of famer is backed by the single most dominant player in the game, Adrian Peterson (RB, 28), and pass rushing media darling Jared Allen (DE, 69) (for more on Allen, check out this week’s Fine Line).

The Packers will be one of the most dangerous teams on the gridiron this year. Aaron Rodgers (QB, 12) is enjoying a statistically unprecedented start to his career with a bevy of targets that can score almost at will. Veteran slant receiver Donald Driver (WR, 80) and burner Greg Jennings (WR, 85) are joined by the emerging talent of Jermichael Finley (TE, 88), James Jones (WR, 89), and Jordy Nelson (WR, 87). Charles Woodson (CB, 21) and Clay Matthews (OLB, 52) lead the defense with the most takeaways in the league, but the Green Bay defense also has some big holes that make them more porous than consistent, which will cost them over the season.

The Bears welcome new offensive coordinator Mike Martz who will have little to work with this year. Calling Jay Cutler (QB, 6) a gunslinger won’t make him Brett Favre (MIN), and even though Matt Forte (RB, 22) is poised for comeback year it won’t be enough to keep this offense from stalling on a weekly basis.

The Lions are likely to continue to be the worst team in the NFL, but at least they are rebuilding aggressively with Matthew Stafford (QB, 9), Calvin “Megatron” Johnson (WR, 81), and Jahvid Best (RB, 44). Look for this squad to make waves in my 2013 season preview.

NFC South.

The reigning Superbowl champs won’t have the magic of 2009, but the Saints will still be a force this year. Drew Brees (QB, 9) and his targets Marques Colston (WR, 12), Jeremy Shockey (TE, 88), and emerging Robert Meachem (WR, 17) will perform on a weekly basis in one of the most potent offenses in the league. The defense was a surprise last year and won’t perform quite as well as last year, but the noise of the awakened “Who dat” nation will support them at home as a solid 12th man.

The Falcons whole team hit a sophomore slump last year as Matt Ryan (QB, 2), Michael Turner (RB, 33), and Roddy White (WR, 84) all failed to live up to high expectations as the team was plagued with injuries and misfortune. Expect this year to go by more smoothly, for Turner to return to dominance, and the Falcons to become competitive again.

The Panthers and Buccaneers have always been known for solid defenses but their lackluster offensive traditions will hold them back again this year. Carolina wisely dumped Jake Delhomme, but haven’t filled the spot with experience, and that will cost them. Tampa Bay also has quarterback woes even though Kellen Winslow Jr. (TE, 82) is sure to be one of the best targets in the league.

NFC West.

Someone has to get into the playoffs by default from this division, and it’s a shame.

The 49ers will most likely win out in this division with a nasty defense led by Patrick Willis (MLB, 52) and under the tutelage of head coach Mike Singletary. Their offense will continue to pound the ball on with Frank Gore (RB, 21) and the new addition of veteran running back Brian Westbrook the ground attack may be even more potent that usual. Vernon Davis (TE, 85) will snag a few touchdowns from Alex Smith (QB, 11) but don’t expect the passing attack to be featured in San Francisco this year.

The Cardinals still have Larry Fitzgerald (WR, 11) and Steve Breaston (WR, 15), but they’ve lost Anquan Boldin (WR) and Kurt Warner (QB), and have recently cut Matt Leinart (QB). For a team that lives and dies with their air attack, you can expect this team to die many painful deaths on the field this year.

Pete Carroll seems to be cleaning house in Seattle this year, cutting TJ Houshmanzadeh (WR) and picking up 6 million dollars of his salary while the Ravens enjoy his talent. Veteran running back Julius Jones is also unemployed this fall. The message from Seattle: we’re rebuilding, don’t expect us to win this year.

St. Louis seems to have picked a gem in Sam Bradford (QB,8) who’s looked sharp leading the offense this preseason, but the Rams’ problems go beyond what one rookie quarterback can fix. Expect Bradford and Steven Jackson (RB, 39) to pull out a couple wins this year but not a whole lot more than that.

The Fine Line – Week 1

Hi everyone, my name is Tom Kellogg and I’m going to be providing the Power Rank faithful with football insights through the 2010 season.  As a former lineman and current line coach, I also hope to shed some light on one of the more obscure parts of the game, line play.

Everyone knows deep down that the line is of critical importance to a football team.  Announcers talk about the action “in the trenches”, coaches say that it’s the key to the game, and general managers spend high draft picks on these no-name players.  But since these players score no points, acquire almost no stats, and have zero fantasy relevance they remain the neglected step-children of the league.

The NFL is starting the season right with an NFC championship rematch between the Saints and the Vikings, whose defense is led by one of the more recognizable linemen in the league, defensive end Jared Allen.  Allen is everything one could want from a defensive end:  he’s fast, strong, emotional, and a sack machine.  Last year Allen racked up 14.5 sacks, so can we expect to see him getting up close and personal with Drew Brees in New Orleans this week?

The short answer:  No.

The biggest single advantage offensive linemen have over defensive linemen is that they know the snap count, which gives them half a step before the defensive player can attack. This critical half step can be the difference between placing a 300lb body between a speed rusher like Allen, and leaving him with nothing but open space to the quarterback.

When teams play in domes like Minnesota does, the sound can get deafening for fans and players alike.  When a linemen can’t hear the quarterback’s cadence, he loses his advantage and can’t do his job as well.  For proof that playing at home in a dome is a critical factor in a sackmaster’s repertoire, just look at Jared Allen.

In his two seasons with the Vikings, Allen has tallied 62% of his sacks at home.  Last year he only had 5 sacks on the road, outside of their dome’s din.  If you think Allen is an aberration, think again.  Dwight Freeny is another speedy sack-happy defensive end who enjoys the loud confines of a covered home stadium.  Over his career at Indianapolis, Freeny has recorded 60% of his 84 sacks at home.  Freeny’s teammate Robert Mathis has also recorded 60% of his sacks at home.

Compare this with some marquee defensive ends that play outside.  Recently retired Michael Strahan racked up 141.5 sacks in his career with the New York Giants, but only 49% of the quarterbacks were crushed at home.  Jason Taylor recorded 127.5 sacks with Miami and Washington, with only 51% earned at home.  Unlike a Jared Allen or Dwight Freeny, these pass rush specialists can be expected to impact games both at home and on the road.

In last year’s NFC championship game Jared Allen had no sacks against New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.  In fact, Brees was only sacked once all game and threw for 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  Allen’s pass rush was not a major factor in that game, and it will most likely not be a factor in tonight’s game either.

That’s the difference a half a step can make for speed rushers like Allen and Freeny who rely on the noise at their home fields to give them an extra few inches in getting around offensive tackles.  Don’t get me wrong, these players are still tremendous athletes and playmakers on any field but don’t buy into the media hype and expect these pass rushers to dominate the line when they play on the road.

We get our statistics from www.pro-football-reference.com.