By Shawn Maher (@ShawnBenMaher)
Cold, Hard Football Facts Nouveau Rush
As the Hog Report anxiously awaits the Wild Card round of the 2012 NFL playoffs, we had an interesting observation. Despite all the 5,000-yard passing seasons in 2011 and the last rites being read to the running game, 2012 has shown that smash-mouth football is not dead yet.
Of course, many of the best running attacks are not the traditional, wishbone running attacks of old. Today’s attacks can run out of the I formation, the pistol set or even the diamond backfield, an inverted cousin of the wishbone.
But with these versatile schemes comes a new breed of hog, powerful enough to win isolated match-ups, but with the agility to play in space like 300+ pound men never have.
And while the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins will be hyped as RGIII against Russell Wilson, it really is really an exposition of the nouveau rush that has taken over the old guard (and tackle and center) of the NFL.
Seahawks at Redskins: The New Smash Mouth
When asked to list the top offensive tackles in the league today, many would not include Seattle’s Russell Okung and Washington’s Trent Williams. But they are the prototypical guards for two of the league’s zone-blocking gurus: Tom Cable and Mike Shanahan.
Both tackles are comfortable blocking smaller players in space, and Williams especially must get downfield frequently the high amount of the screen passes that Shanahan and Robert Griffin III run in their scheme.
But what is even more impressive is how two talented and bruising backs, Alfred Morris and Marshawn Lynch, run so confidently what would appear to be undersized offensive lines.
Small is the new smash mouth.
The Seahawks are coming off an abysmal week in the trenches, although it was against a highly underrated St. Louis team that almost went undefeated in the rough-and-tumble NFC West, if not for a strong second half performance by Seattle.
In the first half, the Seahawks allowed five sacks but stiffened up and only gave up one in the second half. They had not allowed more than two sacks in a game in the past five weeks and Wilson had thrown only two interceptions in that time period. Okung was beaten once by defensive end Robert Quin, but his bookend, Chris Long, thoroughly manhandled right tackle Breno Giacomini, a practice squad promotion who had performed admirably.
In that Week 17 game, the Seahawks had a 24 offensive NPP%, although they did still run for 5.10 YPA. On defense, they struggled to apply pressure against a shaky offensive line, only generating a 2.38 NPP% while giving up 4.16 rushing YPA. St. Louis did finish first overall in NPP% with 11.52 and ninth overall in the Defensive Hog Index, while Seattle’s defensive 9.15 NPP% was good for 10th.
To put perspective on Seattle’s improvement in the rushing game, the 2010 season that they surprised New Orleans in the playoffs, the Seahawks finished with 1,424 yards on 385 attempts for a 3.70 YPA. In 2012, Lynch had more rushing yards than the entire team did in 2010, with 1,590 on 315 carries for a 5.0 YPA.
The Redskins and the Texans are the other premiere zone-rushing teams in the league, but where Mike Shanahan differs from his protégé, Gary Kubiak, is in diversity. Not only has Mike’s son Kyle incorporated elements of the zone-option run, the pistol and diamond formations, and package plays, but the diverse scheme allows a variety of players to shine.
In 2012, 10 different players have averaged over 4 YPA for the Redskins.
Robert Griffin III
And, although Shanahan has adapted his West Coast Offense since his days as the offensive coordinator in San Francisco, he has always retained the run-heavy element. But even as he bruised his way to his first Super Bowl title in 1997, only four players rushed for over 4 YPA.
The modern-day scheme’s success requires athletes all over the field that can run the ball, but also athletes on the line of scrimmage that are versatile and comfortable in space. Williams weighs in at 328, although he moves far more nimbly than a man that size should, and the rest of the line is just above or under 300 pounds. The svelte, athletic offensive lines that the Shanahan's have always prized is being fully utilized in Washington.
Bengals at Texans: Déjà Vu all over Again?
In the exact same time slot on Wild Card Weekend Saturday is a rematch of last year’s lopsided Texans victory. After the Bengals narrowly fell to the Texans by one point on a last-second T.J. Yates touchdown pass, the Texans unexpectedly manhandled the Bengals in the playoff rematch. Both teams succeed when their o-hogs are road grating and their d-hogs is getting after the passer.
Along with their 7-1 record in the second half of the season, the Bengals’ o-hogs, a large, mauling group, went six straight weeks paving holes big enough for BenJarvus Green-Ellis to average over 4 YPA.
The Bengals' big bruisers can be up and down in pass protection, and quarterback Andy Dalton has a tendency to get cabin fever and make poor decisions when the pocket becomes uncomfortable. Unsurprisingly, other than the playoff-berth-clinching win over Pittsburgh this season, the Bengals have been abysmal when passing for over 40 attempts.
Despite the low NPP% in the 16-24 loss to Baltimore in 2011, Dalton still only averaged 5.25 YPA, showing he was not exactly comfortable. His best performance was against Cleveland this season, in which he threw for 7.87 YPA and 3 TDs.
The Texans are built in a similar fashion as the Bengals, but have had far fewer instances of passing for over 40 attempts in the same time span. They have also had better success, except in their 2011 regular season meeting against the Geno Atkins-led pass rush.
W 34-31 (OT)
W 43-37 (OT)
While Cincinnati only at a 3.45 NPP% in their regular-season matchup, Houston put up an atrocious 12.24 while five different d-hogs took down T.J. Yates.
But in the playoffs, the roles reversed. J.J. Watt had his coming out party against the Bengals, with a sack and a pick six, but Cincinnati has super-rookie Kevin Zeitler at right guard instead of street free agent Mike McGlynn. Still, the results are decidedly in the Texans’ favor.
- T.J. Yates: 11-20, 159 yards, 1 TD, no INTs
- Houston had 35 rush attempts for 188 yards with 9.09 NPP%
- Andy Dalton: 27-42, 257 yards, no TDs, 3 INTs
- Cincinnati had 19 rush attempts for 76 yards with 15.22 NPP%
Even with Matt Schaub at quarterback, both teams are better when they lean on their rushing game and let their beasts in the trenches win the game and do not require their quarterbacks to carry the team. This is a lesson that Minnesota has learned that has earned them a spot in the playoffs.
Vikings at Packers: Thunder vs. Lightning Round Three
Now this is a match-up that should be divisive between the proponents of ground and air attacks. The Packers, in winning the first match-up, used their running game to compliment their passing game. They are a pass-first, zone blocking team that has agile, nimble, and, frankly, not overly-physically-intimidating offensive linemen.
The Packers’ goal is to block to keep Aaron Rodgers upright, score quickly then plaster the opposing quarterback with their d-hogs. Their defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, assisted Dick LeBeau in the early days of the zone-blitz development, and excels in putting his pass rushers in positions to create pressure while not becoming exposed in coverage.
In the first meeting, Green Bay won 23-14 and used their pressure to not create sacks, but confuse and hurry Ponder. The Vikings’ offensive line is highly underrated and ranked seventh in the Offensive Hog Index, but is as inexperienced as Ponder at identifying zone blitzes and shifting protections despite having a highly-talented rookie left tackle in Matt Kalil.
In the loss, Minnesota did not allow one sack of Ponder, but still finished with a 8.00 NPP%. In failing to identify the zone blitz schemes, Ponder became uncomfortable and confused as to whether Clay Mathews was rushing and where he was coming from. Ponder finished with 2 INTs on only 25 attempts, negating a day in which Adrian Peterson ran for 210 yards on 21 carries for an astounding 10 YPA.
But the Packers were quietly solid in the running game, as well, running for 152 yards on 36 carries for a 4.22 YPA. They did give up 2 sacks and a 8.11 NPP%, but they were the team winning in the trenches at crunch time.
A constant cure for an inexperienced offensive line is always pounding the ball, winning head-to-head matchups and wearing down a defense. The no-name offensive line in Minnesota loves blocking for a back like Peterson, who elevates their play. In the Vikings win over the Packers in Week 17 to create the first-round rematch, Ponder and the passing game learned to play second fiddle very nicely.
Although Ponder made plays when he needed to, the Packers did play a vanilla defensive scheme in Week 17. That still does not mean that the Vikings were not able to win toe-to-toe in the trenches, with Peterson rushing for 5.85 YPA when the Packers were geared up to stop the run. But, just as importantly, Ponder was an efficient 16-28 for 234 yards and 3 TDs with no INTs.
Rodgers also had a good day statistically, 28-40 for 365 yards and 4 TDs, but the difference was in the pressure. Rodgers found himself taken down by Vikings pass rushers five times, three by Everson Griffen and one each by Jared Allen and Brian Robison. Matthew was the only Packer to record a sack, and the Vikings found themselves running a far more efficient offense.
While the Packers were surely holding back in a game that had far less consequence on their season, the Vikings’ offense is far too efficient when running without a sense of urgency. This is a game far more dependent on line play than will be advertised.
Colts at Ravens: Momentum vs. Pedigree
When Indianapolis visits Baltimore, the two teams appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Ravens have a pedigree of success and were picked by many to finish their season in the Super Bowl, but have limped into the playoffs with a 2-4 record over their past six games.
Unlike the Vikings, their offensive line is filled with big names that have underperformed, Michael Oher and Bryant McKinnie have been anything but solid against speed rushers, center Matt Birk is running on fumes and wily veteran guise, while All-Pro guard Marshall Yanda has been affected by injuries.
On the defensive front, the formerly overpowering pass rush has not seen Terrell Suggs become healthy enough to terrorize opponents, while versatile nose tackle/3 technique tackle Haloti Ngata has also been a shell of his former self due to injury.
The Colts on the other hand, are on a roll, winning five or their last six to make the big dance, peaking at the right time along with the emotional return of their head coach Chuck Pagano, former defensive coordinator for the Ravens. They have an offensive line made of spare pieces, which is self-evident when King Dunlap is starting at tackle. And even though they have allowed 9 sacks of Andrew Luck over the past three weeks, Luck has not thrown an interception.
Defensively, both Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were forced to learn new positions in Pagano’s 3-4 offense, but over the same three-game stretch the Colts have picked up 8 sacks and four interceptions. It appears that the Colts are hitting another gear while the Ravens backslide, but the numbers say that perhaps it is not that the Colts are playing better overall, but that they are playing better at more opportune moments in the game.
In comparing the past six games, the Ravens have performed at close to the same level as their season averages, while the Colts have actually been worse overall in everything except for defensive NPP%, thanks to their newfound pass rush.
- 8.19 Offensive NPP% on the season (13th overall in the OHI)
- 7.76 Offensive NPP% over the past six games
- 4.28 YPA rushing on the season
- 4.53 YPA rushing over the past six games
- 7.38 Defensive NPP% on the season (17th overall in the DHI)
- 9.95 Defensive NPP% over the past six games
- 3.91 rushing YPA allowed on the season
- 3.92 rushing YPA allowed over the past six games
- 8.82 Offensive NPP% on the season (18th overall in the OHI)
- 10.63 NPP% over the past six games
- 3.80 rushing YPA on the season
- 3.52 YPA rushing over the past six games
- 7.08 Defensive NPP% on the season (28th overall in the DHI)
- 8.88 Defensive NP% over the past six games
- 4.57 rushing YPA allowed on the season
- 5.83 rushing YPA allowed over the past six games
Perhaps it is expectations of success that paint the Colts in a better light than the Ravens, but the most important statistic is still in the wins column.