Smarter Stats: NFL Conference championship edition
Football is a tape-based analysis game, and there's no doubt the best way to get a read on teams is to break down their All-22 as much as possible.
Still, there are certain statistical trends and indicators that can be revealing in a preview sense, and here's a heaping helping of advanced numbers for the conference championships.
With all the talk about Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the real story of this game could be how the Patriots' offense has changed around Brady, and to his benefit. When these two teams met in Foxboro, Mass., on Nov. 24, the Patriots had to overcome a 24-0 Broncos lead, which predictably led to 50 Brady passing attempts. And Brady was at his very best when he had to come back, completing 81 percent of his passes, throwing for 8.8 yards per attempt, amassing three touchdown passes and putting up nine plays of 10 yards or more. That was a huge improvement over his 59 percent/4.8/0 TD/two longer plays in the first half, and it made all the difference.
This time around, the game is in Denver, and it's running back LeGarrette Blount who's been the team's bell cow. Blount ran for 166 yards and four touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts in New England's divisional win last Sunday, and that reflects a serious change in trend for Bill Belichick's team. Blount carried the ball just twice against the Broncos last time, through that was the last time in a four-game stretch that the Pats ran for more than 100 yards as a team. But starting against the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 22, New England racked up 142 rushing yards, moved that up to 267 yards in the regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills, and finished off the Colts with 234 yards on the ground.
Blount isn't the only factor in that newly-dominant run game. New England finished first in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards metric, which seeks to give offensive lines specific credit for run success. The Pats are the NFL's best in runs up the middle with 4.88 ALY per carry between the guards, and second through the left guard/tackle area at 5.10.
Though the Broncos finished 15th in FO's opponent-adjusted metrics in overall defense, they're uniquely suited to deal with Blount's ability to wreak havoc up the middle. Only the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions allowed fewer Defensive Adjusted Line yards in the regular season, and the Broncos led the league with 2.91 DALY allowed up the middle. So, Blount's primary opposition will be provided by Denver nose tackle Terrance Knighton, who totaled 19 run stops in 263 run snaps this season.
On the Denver side, the primary non-Manning story may be the absence of cornerback Chris Harris, who suffered a torn ACL in the third quarter of Denver's divisional win over the Chargers. It was a 17-0 game when Harris was hurt, and Philip Rivers immediately went after Quentin Jammer, Harris' replacement, both outside and in the slot. Harris allowed three catches on three targets in that game ... for a total of five yards. Jammer allowed three catches on five targets for 95 yards and a touchdown, and that's consistent with the regular-season results.
Harris was one of the NFL's best cover men in 2013, allowing a team-low 64.9 opponent quarterback rating and just one touchdown on 581 passing snaps. Jammer allowed a team-high 123.8 quarterback rating and three touchdowns on just 143 passing snaps.
Harris also took 393 snaps in the slot, by far the most on the team, and this could be a real problem against a Patriots offense that targets the slot receiver as often and as efficiently as any NFL franchise.
San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
With the news that receiver Percy Harvin will be out for the NFC Championship game (as he's been out for most of the season), the Seahawks will have to continue to find other ways to get deep passes and yards after the catch. And despite what some might have you believe, Seattle already had receivers who could rack up deep targets before Harvin was acquired in March 2013. This season, Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate have filled that spot estimably -- Baldwin has nine catches in 15 targets in which the ball went 20 or more yards in the air, and he amassed 302 yards and two touchdowns on those plays. Tate caught eight such passes in 20 targets for 294 yards and two touchdowns.
On the San Francisco side, and though the 49ers haven't lost a game since receiver Michael Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles tendon on Dec. 1, it's tight end Vernon Davis who's been his team's most productive deep target this season. Davis has also been the best on passes over 20 yards at his position in the NFL in 2013. He led the league with 11 such catches for 409 yards and six touchdowns. However, he caught just five total passes for 41 yards and a touchdown against Seattle in two games, and that's partially because Seattle's linebackers are so good in coverage. Seattle will have K.J. Wright back for this game, but reserve Malcolm Smith did an excellent job while Wright was out with a foot injury. Smith allowed 22 catches on 31 targets for 201 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in 226 passing snaps this season, while Wright allowed 32 catches on 47 targets for 248 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks in 296 passing snaps.
One way in which the Seahawks have countered 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is to avoid blitzing him, which goes against the NFL's type. According to ESPN's Stats & Info, no quarterback has been blitzed more in the last two seasons, and it generally doesn't work too well for those teams. Kaepernick has a 19-2 touchdown-to-interception total when facing five or more pass rushers, which makes sense for his game. With extra defenders brought against him, Kaepernick can identify uncovered first and second receivers and make quick throws. He can also get out of the pocket -- and outside of structure -- and create shot plays from scrambles while opposing defenses are left with fewer deep defenders than they'd like. The Seahawks have gone with four or fewer pass rushers on 75 percent of Kaepernick's snaps in the last two seasons, and the results have been impressive -- in two games this season against Seattle, he's completed 28 of 57 passes for 302 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. It isn't just Seattle's outstanding secondary that befuddles Kaepernick, the entire defense knows how to keep him bottled up and second-guessing, and you can expect similar schematic ideas on Sunday.