By Shawn Maher (@ShawnBenMaher)
Cold, Hard Football Facts’ Pulling Lineman Provocateur
Entering into the Divisional round of the NFL playoffs, teams have fortified their ground attack as they hunker down for some trench warfare. In the Wild Card round of the playoffs, six out of eight teams ran the ball at least 30 times.
The two teams that did not were Minnesota, with 29 carries and Washington with 23, which, considering their early lead, likely would have been higher had Robert Griffin III been fully healthy. This trend is certainly celebrated by many of the mauling men in the trenches, but with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady taking the field this weekend, will the trend continue?
Houston Texans at New England Patriots: Second Verse, Same as the First?
Just three weeks ago, the Texan visited Foxborough, letterman jackets and all, and were beaten like a high school team 42-17. The Patriots had a 5.41 NPP% while the Texans sported a 7.89. Since that meeting, the Patriots have turned up the heat on their pass rush with a 10.83 NPP% over the last three weeks of the season.
That includes the last week of the season, in which New England piled up five sacks on Miami, piling up a ridiculous 19.05 NPP%. That vaulted them five spots up the Defensive Hog Index to finish the season ranked tenth.
On the offensive side, the Patriots consistently topped the Offensive Hog Index throughout the season. With their up-tempo offense, running at such a break-neck speed that they could finish fourth in pass attempts, with 641, and second in rush attempts with 523, the Patriots were one of three teams in 2012 that had at least 630 pass attempts and less than thirty sacks.
Even more impressive, and indicative of why New England dominated the OHI, was that no other team in history has ever thrown over 630 times with less than thirty sacks and less than 10 INTs.
That speak volumes to the retooled offensive line, not only to the talent of breakout players like left tackle Nate Solder, but the unheralded genius of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and his next-man-up, blue-collar philosophy.
With J.J. Watt leading Houston’s third-ranked d-hogs, the top offensive line in the NFL will undoubtedly be tested.
Even more important to New England’s hopes to replicate their success is how they attack Houston’s running game. Bill Belichick’s defense tends to combine a gap-shooting approach on the strong side combined with a two-gap, block-eating approach on the back side.
When the Texans run their zone running plays, the idea is to blow past the Houston linemen and force Arian Foster to cut back before he is ready, where defensive linemen will be waiting.
But that is easier said than done. Gary Kubiak is a student to the zone-blocking gospel of Alex Gibbs, a revered name in the hallowed halls of hogdom. When the Texans offense is humming, the running game is consistently gaining positive yardage and creating manageable first downs. In the first seven games of the season, in which Houston finished 7-1, they rushed for gains of 25 yards or more only twice, but the most yardage lost on a run was four yards, and that only happened three times.
At that point in the season, the Texans were ranked third on the OHI and converting 45.19% of their third downs, the sixth-best rate in the league. After the late-season swoon, the unit is only ranked 12th with a third-down-conversion rate of 37.56%, good for 17th in the NFL.
What bodes well for Houston is that they were able to summon their early season form against Cincinnati’s fourth-ranked d-hogs, who finished third in the league with 51 sacks, although they registered none against Houston.
Just as importantly, they were able to sustain long, grinding drives with a 47.05% success rate on third downs. That will be a big key if Houston wants to reverse their earlier season fate against New England.
Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons: Teams that are as Opposite as their Coasts
Seattle is as hot as any team in the NFL right now, finishing the season atop the CHFF quality stat rankings.
And since the most important statistic is points scored, it is worth noting that the Seahawks finished as the top-ranked team in bendability, a reflection of their defense which only allowed 245 points. The next closest defense was San Francisco, with 273.
There are a few concerns worth noting with Seattle’s hogs. First is the season-ending ACL tear that defensive end Chris Clemons suffered on the “turf” at FedEx Field. He led the team with 11.5 sacks. Part of the big reason of the defense’s success is trusting the defensive line to win their match-ups without much help.
That is show in the 79% of Seattle’s sacks that were generated by their defensive line. Denver and St. Louis led the league with 52 sacks, but only 75.96% of Denver’s sacks were generated by d-hogs and 75% of the Rams’ total. The Seahawks give more snaps to rookie Bruce Irvin, who is more of a pass rushing specialists. Luckily, the Falcons only rush for 3.7 YPA when they actually run the ball.
And while left tackle Russell Okung has been selected to the Pro Bowl, he and his fellow linemen will have to take their game up a notch against Jonathan Abraham and the Falcons. Seattle allowed 5 sacks to the Redskins, which generated a 16.13 NPP%.
On the other hand, they ran for 6.05 against Washington, and surprisingly had the most success up the middle and behind the right side of the offensive line. Center Max Unger does not get the credit he deserves, but right guard and tackle were thought to be weak spots. Right guard John Moffitt appears to be filling in adequately after James Carpenter was lost for the season.
Rushing Averages against Washington:
- Left edge: 1.0 YPA
- Left tackle: 3.0 YPA
- Left guard: 5.0 YPA
- Center: 10.6 YPA
- Right guard: 16.75 YPA
- Right tackle: 3.17 YPA
- Right edge: 6.75 YPA
And while Atlanta is only rushing for 3.70 YPA, they are giving up 4.80 per carry. That is not a good match-up against a run-heavy Seahawks team. In fact, Atlanta is only the third team since the merger, including the 2003 Rams and 1973 Patriots, to allow at least 4.80 YPA while rushing for 3.70 YPA or less.
Since their physical wide receivers match up well against Seattle’s bruising cornerbacks and Matt Ryan will stay clean behind his offensive line, it could turn into a shootout in the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons’ d-hogs are only ranked 25th, but they do carry a respectable 8.45 NPP% that is right in the middle of the league. Their strength, however, is their offense and their ninth-ranked offensive line. They only gave up a 6.53 NPP% and the 9.15 that Seattle had against Washington is unlikely to be replicated.
Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos: It’s Hard to Beat the Best
With newly installed offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell at the helm, the Ravens have begun to play to the strengths of their o-hogs. Pile-moving tackles like Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher are plodding in pass protection, but when asked to run block 32 times against the Colts, they responded with a 5.38 YPA. All this while only throwing it 23 times.
This formula has long been successful for the Ravens, although they seem to often shy away from it.
More than 30 RA & Less than 25 PA Since 2010
Wk 14 2012
L 28-31 (OT)
Wk 9 2012
Wk 17 2011
Wk 16 2011
Wk 13 2011
Wk 12 2011
Wk 16 2010
Wk 15 2010
Wk 5 2010
Of course, the defense must shoulder the brunt of the burden with this strategy. The return of Ray Lewis may have garnered the headlines, but it was Haloti Ngata’s versatility as a lineman that can play a 1, 3 or 5 technique that really jump started the Ravens’ defense that picked up three sacks and forced an Indianapolis interception.
Paul Kruger was another hog that played a huge role, accounting for 2.5 of the team’s sacks. Denver’s left tackle Ryan Clady has been banged up, which could create an interesting match-up with Kruger.
In 2012, Denver has been extraordinary in their line play, however. They tied for the league lead by racking up 52 sacks and only give up 21. They were the top-ranked d-hogs and their offensive line was ranked fourth overall, but topped the league in NPP%.
To emphasize Denver’s trench excellence, they are only the sixth team in history to pick up at least 52 sacks and give up 21 or less. And when considering NPP%, it becomes very favorable in Denver’s favor.
Over 52 Sacks while Only Allowing 21
*Sack estimate courtesy Pro Football Reference
And while the Broncos’ league-best 5.25 is commendable, it is still not as great of a performance as Peyton Manning received from his Super Bowl winning offensive line of the 2006 Colts, the difference is the Broncos are a far more complete team. While the Broncos have the top-ranked d-hogs, the 2006 Colts finished 26th in the DHI and 24th with 7.76 NPP%, compared to the Broncos’ 11.13.
The Ravens are playing better lately than has been acknowledged, but Denver is simply too strong at ground zero for Baltimore to overcome.
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers: A Rematch of Revamped Teams
Even though the Packers began the season with a 33-20 loss to the 49ers, so much can change over the course of 17 weeks. At that time, San Francisco was starting Alex Smith, with whom the 49ers had a 11.98 NPP%.
In the same number of passing attempts, the 49er offensive line has hit a new gear under Colin Kaepernick and his energizing play, reflected in the much-improved 8.12 NPP%.
San Francisco is undoubtedly going to try to establish the run, but they surprisingly had only the seventh-most rushing attempts in the NFL this season. That may be partially attributed to the volume of plays: league-leader Seattle ran the ball 56.96% of the time, while second place New England only ran 44.93%. The 49ers ran 53.01% of the time, in comparison.
The Packers’ run defense had an extraordinary day against the Vikings in the Wild Card round, however. After letting Adrian Peterson run for at least 199 yards in two meetings this season, the Packers’ humongous hog duo of Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji came up big against the Vikings’ underrated o-hogs.
The superhuman Peterson only gained 99 yards and his longest run was for 18. Throughout the season, Peterson had racked up seven runs of over 50 yards, often by having enough room to hit the line with a full head of steam. As shown in the picture, Pickett’s immovability at nose tackle was key to make plays in the run game. Against this Wham run, the Vikings’ H-back hits Pickett at full speed and does not move him even a millimeter. Peterson can not get going and A.J. Hawk makes the tackle.
The Packers will likely be worried about Aaron Rodgers’ health, especially if hog hero Justin Smith returns healthy. Or healthy enough for the old cowboy to open up pass-rushing lanes for his partner in crime Aldon Smith.
Neither of the linemen on the Packers’ left side of the line, guard T.J. Lang or tackle Marshall Newhouse, are especially powerful, and the team of Smith and Smith may give them a lesson on how they reached 22.5 sacks combined this season.
Statistically, the hogs are fairly evenly matched. The Packers gave up 8.33 NPP% on the season, and the 49ers caused 8.6. While San Francisco only gives up 3.7 YPA, the Packers run for 3.93. That 3.93 average may not seem impressive, but the Packers matched that 3.7 YPA at the halfway point of the season. Subbing out center Jeff Saturday for Evan Dietrich-Smith has been the single-biggest reason for the improvement, and the secret behind the Packers’ recent success.