Friday, January 15, 2016

Your Sunday Divisional Round Primer

Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin has been on a tear lately, but how will he fare against Carolina All-Pro corner Josh Norman?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

In case you missed it yesterday, we posted our preview of Saturday's games, with picks included. This post will cover Sunday's games, and let's not bother wasting any time.

Seattle at Carolina (1:00 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

Opening Line: Panthers by 3
Current Line: Panthers by 1.5

By The Numbers:

Record: 10-6 Overall, 5-3 Away; 8-7-1 Against the Spread, 4-3-1 Away
Average Score: 26.4 (4th) - 17.3 (1st)
Average Scoring Margin: +9.1 (4th); 11.7 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +18.5% Offense (2nd); -15.2% Defense (4th); +4.2% Special Teams (3rd); +38.0% Overall (1st) 

Record: 15-1 Overall; 8-0 Home; 11-5 Against The Spread; 6-2 Home
Average Score: 31.2 (1st) - 19.2 (6th)
Average Scoring Margin: +12.0 (1st); 12.1 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +9.9% Offense (8th); -18.4% Defense (2nd); -2.4% Special Teams (23rd); +25.9% Overall (4th)

Player(s) to Watch (SEA): Russell Okung, Garry Gilliam

You don't think of Russell Wilson as a quarterback who takes a pounding, but the fact of the matter is, Wilson was sacked the third-most of any quarterback in the league, with a sack-per-dropback rate that was the 5th-most frequent of regular starters. When you adjust for certain inequalities (for example, the quarterback is much more likely to be sacked when the defense blitzes, and the quarterback is much more likely to be sacked on 3rd-and-10 than 3rd-and-3), Seattle ranked 30th of 32 teams in Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate - only Tennessee and San Francisco were worse.

Okung and Gilliam are the bookend tackles, and they will go up against a stout Carolina front. Mario Addison, Kony Ealy, and the artist formerly known as Jared Allen will all rotate through at defensive end, while Kawann Short, the team's sack leader, hopes to cause a ruckus inside from his defensive tackle spot.

When Seattle runs the ball, it will be strength vs. strength. Seattle's offensive line is actually one of the best in the league when it comes to run blocking - their outside-zone scheme is the class of the NFL. But opposite them, Carolina's defensive line is one of the best run-stuffing units in football. With Marshawn Lynch still questionable, that matchup probably favors Carolina.

When Seattle passes the ball, it is weakness vs. strength. Seattle's offensive line can't protect their quarterback, and Carolina's pass rush is among the top third of the league. If Seattle's run game never materializes (like it didn't against Minnesota - 28 carries for just 97 yards), it will be up to Russell Wilson to win the game with his arm. But if he's running for his life, Seattle might have another offensive letdown.


Player(s) to Watch (CAR): Greg Olsen, Josh Norman

The last time these teams met, Olsen absolutely torched the Seahawks' famed "Legion of Boom" secondary. The speedy tight end hauled in seven catches for 126 yards, including a long bomb to set up a Panthers score, and 26-yard touchdown catch that would prove to be the game-winner.

Olsen was one of just four tight ends to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving this season (he finished second among TEs in receiving yards, behind only Rob Gronkowski), and he has been the one consistent target for quarterback Cam Newton the last few years. If the Panthers are going to again have success against this secondary, it will likely be because Seattle can't find an answer for "Third Leg Greg."

On defense, Carolina has enjoyed a break-out season from cornerback Josh Norman, who may just be the top shut-down coverage guy in the league right now. He'll likely draw the task of slowing down Doug Baldwin, Seattle's red-hot receiver, and if he can do so, it's hard to see the Seahawks moving the ball, outside of some absolute Russell Wilson magic.

If Norman and Olsen do their jobs, Carolina will likely collect its 16th win of the season.


Hidden Points (SEA): Safety First

Oh, and guess who will get the unenviable task of trying to slow down Olsen? That's right, Seattle's outstanding pair of safeties, Earl Thomas and Kam Chanellor. It was actually both of these guys that blew a coverage to open things up for Olsen's game-winner back in October, and Chancellor was burnt by Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph last week for a catch and run that would have ended the Seahawks' season… If Blair Walsh didn't miss a gimme field goal.

Basically, tight ends, especially big ones that can run after the catch, present a problem for these two, but they aren't two of the best in the league for no reason. At his best, Thomas is the best coverage safety in the game, and Chancellor is the league's premier secondary enforcer. If they're both on top of their games, the script could be flipped from the first time around.


Hidden Points: Cam Unleashed?

In his five years in the league, Cam Newton has been pretty consistent with how much he runs the ball. His career low was in 2013, at 6.9 carries per game. His career high was this year, at 8.3 per game. The uncertainty comes when you dive into the types of runs he had.

First of all, he had more kneel-downs than ever before. 14 of his 132 carries were kneels, leaving 118 "meaningful" rush attempts. Of those attempts, fewer and fewer of them are coming on long yards-to-go downs, and more and more are coming on 3rd-and-short. In previous years (2011-2013 especially), a big part of Carolina's offense was designed runs from Newton or zone-read plays on 1st and 2nd down. Those calls are far less frequent now. So what does this mean?

The easiest inference to make is that Carolina is making a more concerted effort to shield Newton from unnecessary hits. After he suffered through rib injuries for most of 2014, this seems like a smart move that paid off - he's been in pristine condition all year. But what happens in the postseason? With a maximum of three games left in the regular season, will Carolina open up the offense a bit more, giving Newton more freedom to freelance as a runner?

Seattle probably isn't the team to experiment against, especially when the experiment opens up your quarterback to being hit more often, but the possibility does exist. Newton has been their most effective runner this year, doubly so when Jonathan Stewart missed the last three games of the season with a foot injury (he's probable this weekend). If Newton needs to carry the ball 20 times for Carolina to win, that's what will happen.


The Picks:

Carolina 24, Seattle 21

Seattle finished the season strong, and a number of metrics suggest they're a far better team than their seeding (Football Outsiders has them ranked best in the league, Pro Football Reference has them ranked 2nd behind Arizona). But this might not be a good matchup for them. If Carolina can shut down a ground game that might again be without Marshawn Lynch, it will be up to Russell Wilson to win the game through the air. Unfortunately for Seattle, Carolina ranked first in the league in Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt and intercepted 24 opponent passes this season. Doug Baldwin had a breakout season, but Josh Norman had a breakout season of his own. Without a truly reliable secondary option, Seattle's offense might not have enough firepower.

They didn't have as much as they had hoped for last week against Minnesota, but their defense carried them. That will be a taller order this week, as Carolina comes into the game with one of the most efficient offenses in the league. They ranked 1st in points per drive, and while they ranked just 12th in yards per drive, that was bolstered by ranking 2nd in average starting field position. Once inside the red zone, they had the best red zone offense in football. Cam Newton threw 24 touchdowns to 0 interceptions inside the 20 yard-line this season, and ran in for 10 more touchdowns. An efficient Carolina offense should keep Russell Wilson off the field, and put the Panthers into the NFC Championship game.


Carolina 17, Seattle 10

If I hadn't watched every play of Seattle's near-loss to the Vikings, I probably would be taking the Seahawks here. But, after seeing the Minnesota defensive line run roughshod over Seattle's offensive front, and no Seattle receiver other than Doug Baldwin create any separation, I've changed my mind.

This should again be a close one, and I think both defenses will have better days than the first time these teams met, but I'm going with Cam Newton to make those one or two splash plays that win the game. On the other side of the ball, look for Kawann Short, the most underrated interior pass rusher in the league, to create havoc against the inside of Seattle's O-line, and for stud corner Josh Norman to take Baldwin, Seattle's only real weapon, out of the game.


Pittsburgh at Denver (4:40 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

Opening Line: Denver by 5.5
Current Line: Denver by 8.5

By The Numbers:

Record: 10-6 Overall, 4-4 Away; 8-6-2 Against the Spread; 4-3-1 Away
Average Score: 26.4 (4th) - 19.9 (11th)
Average Scoring Margin: +6.5 (7th); 10.6 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +17.3% Offense (3rd); -3.8% Defense (11th); +0.1% Special Teams (18th); +21.3% Overall (7th)

Record: 12-4 Overall; 6-2 Home; 8-6-2 Against The Spread; 3-5 Home
Average Score: 22.2 (19th) - 18.5 (4th)
Average Scoring Margin: +3.7 (10th); 9.7 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -8.8% Offense (25th); -25.8% Defense (1st); +0.7% Special Teams (14th); +17.7% Overall (8th)

Player(s) to Watch (PIT): Markus Wheaton, Cameron Heyward

Obviously, you should watch Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will be playing with a badly injured shoulder, as well. If Big Ben can't throw it more than the five yards he could at the end of Pittsburgh's win over Cincinnati, these other two players probably won't matter much. That being said, here are guys that could determine the outcome of the game, assuming Roethlisberger can toss a seven-yard hitch.

While most will point to Martavis Bryant as a player that needs to step up now that Antonio Brown has been ruled out with a concussion, Wheaton is actually the "steadier" target that Ben Roethlisberger likes to lean on. While he may lack Bryant's big-play ability, Wheaton is a consistent route-runner with good hands and, along with tight end Heath Miller, represents Pittsburgh's best chance of moving the chains against a Denver pass rush that often doesn't give receivers like Bryant the time to get downfield.

On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh is going to need a monster day from its defense, and that begins up front with Heyward. Denver has its own quarterback issues, so the Broncos will likely come in looking to run the ball. That's where Heyward comes in, but it won't be enough to stuff the run. No, Heyward will need to be able to get pressure on Peyton Manning to lessen the Steelers' need to blitz the future Hall of Fame quarterback.

Manning's arm may be shot, but his mind is still sharp. If the Steelers get desperate and have to blitz, he'll likely be able to exploit it. But, if Heyward and company can stuff the run, and get pressure with just four rushers, Manning will have to start pushing the ball down the field. Something I'm not sure either quarterback in this game can do.


Player(s) to Watch (DEN): Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Bradley Roby

Denver might finally have a stable of cornerbacks to compete with Seattle as the best position group in the league. With Antonio Brown out, they could hold a key trump card for Denver.

Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton will be Pittsburgh's two top options, with Darius Heyward-Bey rotating in as well. Talib will likely line up opposite Bryant, with Harris on the opposite side and Roby defending the slot (which will likely be Wheaton more often than not). Each of Denver's corners should have the one-on-one advantage over those respective receivers. Bryant is Pittsburgh's best hope to make plays in the passing game, but he has struggled in the past against mauling, physical corners like Talib. If Denver rotates safety help over the top, that will make life even more difficult.

Ben Roethlisberger's shoulder injury, as well as the threat of Denver's dominant pass rush, will probably combine to create a gameplan where Pittsburgh tries to get the ball out as quickly as possible on short throws. This is where Brown's absence really hurts. His timing with Roethlisberger is better than any receiver-quarterback combo in the league, and without him in the game, Pittsburgh won't have a reliable option when the ball needs to get out immediately. Heyward-Bey at this point is purely a vertical threat, and if Roethlisberger's injury means he can't throw the ball downfield with any efficacy, Heyward-Bey becomes a non-factor.

Pittsburgh's best option is probably to rely heavily on wide receivers screens, which they are normally pretty good with. It will be up to Denver's corners to sniff out those screens and blow them up before they can become a problem.


Hidden Points: Turnovers

It's cliche to use "turnovers" as a hidden point, but for the Steelers it rings true, and points to a larger story. Pittsburgh has lost the turnover battle five time this year, and lost all five games. Meanwhile, they've won the turnover battle, or played it even, 11 times, going 10-1.

Basically, if Ben Roethlisberger holds onto the ball, Pittsburgh doesn't lose. The Steelers are also underrated as a takeaway team, ranking third in the league with 30 forced turnovers. That's nearly two a game, and they've done it with largely overmatched corners thanks to a revived pass rush (third in the league with 48 sacks), some new coverage looks from first-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler, and a quietly outstanding season from corner William Gay (While Pittsburgh plays three or four corners that can't cover anybody, Williams Gay was the only starting corner on any team not to give up a TD during the regular season, and grabbed a pair of interceptions, including a pick-6).

In two of the five games Pittsburgh lost the turnover battle, it was because either Roethlisberger was playing hurt, or because Landry Jones was starting at quarterback. Since we're probably headed for another game like that (and one without Roethlisberger's favorite target, Antonio Brown), it's hard to see Pittsburgh winning the turnover battle, and thus, the game.


Hidden Points: Denver's Quarterback

Does anyone actually know who is going to line up under center for the Broncos? Both quarterbacks are recovering from injuries, but both are listed as probable, and are both likely "available" to play.

So that raises the question - do the Broncos go with Peyton Manning, who is perhaps healthy for the first time since tossing lasers around against the Packers back in Week 8, or do they go with Brock Osweiler, who by nearly all accounts has won over the locker room and, statistically speaking, has out-played Manning this year.

The conventional wisdom would be that Manning gets the nod. He's the only one of the two who is going to the Hall of Fame, and Gary Kubiak doesn't have the Belichick crazy-like-a-fox streak that might lead him to benching his healthy all-world quarterback.

Don't forget, however, that Manning has thrown just nine NFL passes in the last two months, and the passes he threw prior to that were wet garbage. His last start saw him complete just five of 20 attempts, with four interceptions, and a passer rating of 0.0 - the worst it can be, in case you were confused.


The Picks:

Denver 26, Pittsburgh 21

With Brown out, I don't think Pittsburgh will have enough firepower to score a boatload of points against Denver's top-ranked defense. Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman (two of our players to watch from last weekend's preview) ran the ball effectively against Cincinnati, but (a) Denver's defense is better than Cincinnati's, and (b) Denver won't have to worry about getting beat deep if Brown is sidelined and Roethlisberger can't get the ball downfield.

Denver's quarterback situation is obviously an enigma. Neither Manning or Osweiler have done anything to suggest that they're Super Bowl-caliber quarterbacks. If Denver is going to win, it's going to be on the strength of their defense. What could submarine them, though, is their quarterback laying an egg.

Manning is the likely starter, and, as mentioned above, hasn't really seen meaningful game reps since before Thanksgiving. My guess is that he'll come out a little rusty and the game will be close throughout. The Steelers will cover, but without Brown, they'll fall just a little bit short.


Denver 24, Pittsburgh 7

As a Steelers fan, it pains me to say this, but my team has just run out of gas and bodies.

If this were the Pittsburgh squad that beat the Broncos less than a month ago, I'd pick them, but it's not. This is a team missing its best player (Antonio Brown), its top two running backs (Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams), and hoping that a one-armed Ben Roethlisberger will be effective enough to defeat one of the league's elite defenses on the road.

Given those odds, I think my dog Daphne pretty accurately reflects my thoughts on the Steelers this week.

This seems like a game where the Steelers keep it close for a half with their run defense, but after not moving the ball for an extended period of time, Roethlisberger takes some shots into coverage and, without his usual arm strength or Brown to bail him out, he throws two or three picks and the game gets away from them.

Call it a bummer of an end for a really fun team that was ravaged by injuries. From Maurkice Pouncey in the preseason, to tackles Kelvin Beachum and Mike Adams going down for the year, to Le'Veon Bell midseason, to Brown and Ben in the playoffs, the injury bug hit Pittsburgh's offense hard in 2015.


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