Jets on the Bounce
Suggesting that the Jets have been getting “lucky” over the past three weeks is like begging for a swarm of locusts to swoop down and destroy my Inbox. The Jets may have won the last three games by a total of 12 points, with two overtime wins and one last-minute touchdown drive, but that just means that they play 60 minutes of tough football and find ways to win. Right?
The Jets do play 60 minutes of tough football (74 minutes, in some cases), but one of the ways they have found to win is called the Lucky Bounce. The Jets have fumbled 15 times, but they lost only five of those fumbles. They have forced 16 fumbles, recovering 12 of them. The ball keeps bouncing the Jets’ way, and it is having a huge impact on their close wins.
The Jets fumbled five times against the Lions three weeks ago. Mark Sanchez coughed the ball up while getting sacked deep in his own territory, but Damien Woody fell on it. A few plays later, Sanchez threw a 76-yard touchdown. Sanchez also fumbled a snap but pounced on it to set up a Nick Folk field goal. The five fumbles resulted in just one turnover, so the Jets were able to hang around long enough to stage a late comeback. While their offense bumbles, their defense snatches up everything in sight: you know about the Browns’ overtime fumble two weeks ago, and an Arian Foster fumble to start the fourth quarter last week set up a Folk field goal that turned out to be crucial.
At Football Outsiders, we have studied fumbles for years. The defense recovers just over 50% of all fumbles, though the percentage varies depending on who dropped the ball and where (quarterbacks usually pounce on snaps, wide receivers are rarely able to chase down a fumble after a catch). When teams are well above or below 50% for a period of several weeks, they tend to snap back to the mean, no matter how tough or aggressive their defense is or how much their coach rants about the importance of ball security. Remember, the Jets aren’t causing a lot of fumbles — they cause just about as many as they give up — they are just recovering a lot of them. That’s not skill, it’s good fortune. It will turn around on them some time before the season ends.
A Blast against the Bengals
On offense and defense, the Bengals are the worst short-yardage team in the NFL. On offense, they pass too often on 3rd-and-1, then run up the middle at the worst possible times (like with five seconds left before halftime). On defense, they are incapable of stopping opponents in short yardage situations, either on third down or at the goal line.
Opponents are 12-of-14 against the Bengals on third and fourth down will less than two yards to go. In goal-to-go situations, opponents have scored nine touchdowns in 18 attempts, but most of the Bengals’ “stops” were runs from 8-10 yards away. Inside the 3-yard line, opponents are 8-of-10 on rushing touchdowns.
If the Bengals can’t stop blasts up the middle, they don’t have a chance against the Jets, who will happily jam the ball down your throat once they reach the red zone.
Cowboys in the McBriar Patch
Lots of people are taking credit for the Cowboys’ sudden turnaround: Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett, Jerry Jones, Dez Bryant, Jerry Jones, and Jerry Jones. Few people have noticed the contributions of Matt McBriar, who leads the NFL with a net punting average of 42.4. For a team that is battling back from the brink, every yard of field position helps.
McBriar pinned the Lions inside the 20-yard line twice last week, forcing them to start drives on their own 6 and 9-yard lines. He also booted the ball 69 yards after a safety, so the Lions couldn’t capitalize on good field position after a Cowboys mistake. McBriar nailed 61 and 56 yard punts against the Giants that forced the Giants to drive the length of the field while trying to catch up.
McBriar doesn’t deserve all of the credit; the Cowboys coverage units have been very good. Sam Hurd leads the kick gunners with 11 tackles and three assists. Return specialist Brian McCann has also made a huge contribution, of course, with two touchdowns in two weeks. McBriar and McCann have more to do with the Cowboys’ two-game winning streak than any mystical change in “chemistry,” but it’s more fun to talk about intangibles than punters.
Saints in the Seventies
For the second straight year, Drew Brees’ completion percentage is hovering around 70 percent. He’s completing 69.5 percent of his passes this season after setting an NFL record last year with a 70.6 percent completion rate.
You may think that Brees’ completion rates are propped up by lots of super-short passes. In fact, Brees has thrown 44 passes that netted fewer than three yards, not counting short touchdowns or first down throws. Turn these 44 passes into incomplete passes, and Brees still has a completion percentage of 58.9, just about the league average. And remember, the Saints didn’t invent the screen pass: every quarterback has a few 1-yard dump-offs lurking in his stat totals.
Moving the chains is what Brees does best: 110 of his passes have netted 5-10 yards, allowing the Saints to slowly carve up opponents during their quiet three-game winning streak. Brees has completed these productive short passes to everyone from Marques Colston to Reggie Bush to Julius Jones to … Drew Brees. That’s right: Brees completed a 9-yard pass to himself after one of his throws was tipped by a Niners defender. If he can master the self-pass, maybe he can get his completion rate up to 80 percent.
The Patriots Tighten Up
After years of spreading the field with four wide receivers and raining bombs and screens upon the landscape, the Patriots have gone back to their roots by featuring a trio of tight ends: rookies Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski and hard-blocking veteran Alge Crumpler. The trio is on a pace to catch a total of 95 passes for 1161 yards and 15 touchdowns. If the Patriots had one impressive rookie tight end catching all those balls instead of two, that player would be a lock for Rookie of the Year honors, not to mention an MVP candidate.
The rookie tight ends (Crumpler rarely catches a pass) have had their biggest impact in the red zone. Gronkowski and Hernandez have been targeted 17 times inside the 20-yard line, catching 11 passes for eight touchdowns and three drive-sustaining first downs. Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Randy Moss have been targeted 21 times in the red zone; they combined for 13 catches but just five touchdowns. The Patriots score touchdowns on 29.5 percent of their drives, the highest percentage in the NFL. Without their rookie tight ends, they would settle for a few more field goals, which would put them at least a game behind the Jets.
Lions up the Gut
Ndamukong Suh is the most exciting rookie defensive tackle to enter the league since Warren Sapp. He’s also a puzzling character. Suh has seven sacks, an interception, a fumble-return touchdown and an extra point attempt. He has also been penalized six times, for everything from roughing the passer to pulling Marion Barber’s hair.
The sacks and penalties suggest that Suh is talented but undisciplined, and the stats bear this out. According to the NFL’s Game Statistics Information System, the Lions allow 6.96 yards per rush on runs up the middle, straight into the heart of Suh territory. That figure is inflated by a few long runs, but once Football Outsiders adjusts the figures, the Lions still rank 28th in the league in stopping inside runs. The Cowboys spotted this weakness last week, which is why they ran a few successful draws up the gut on 3rd-and-long. Suh charges upfield too quickly at times, and fellow tackle Corey Williams wears down if he’s on the field too long. The Patriots, who are suddenly a run-heavy time, will try to exploit Suh’s inexperience up the middle.
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