‘sup? Benny Gloves back again with the Warrior Spirit… LETS GOOOOOOOOOOOO!
Sunday 1/14 Jaguars at Steelers 1:05pm
The Story: In a strength on strength matchup, which weak link will surprise?
Keys to the Game: The Steelers feature an excellent offense (#3 ranked OFF DVOA) which will matchup against the #1 ranked Jags DEF. And as long as Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t repeat the career worst (5 int) performance from their ealier matchup, you can expect these units to pretty much battle to a standstill. Both will get theirs. The Steelers would be wise to utilize Le’Veon Bell to exploit the Jags weaker run DEF. Notably they are30th against the run on first down and 24th on second down. They are also 29th against the run in the red zone.
We’ve buried the lead far enough. Isn’t Blake Bortles against the PIT DEF a crippling mismatch that dooms the Jags? Possibly, but you should know this, while the Steelers season long DEF DVOA ranking is 9th, they have been in a tailspin. Notably when it comes to defending the pass, through Week 9, the Steelers ranked third in DVOA, but since Week 10, Pittsburgh fell to 21st in DVOA. That drop of 18 spots in the rankings ties Detroit for the largest fall in the second half of the season. In that same time frame the Pitt DEFhas allowed eight touchdown passes that gained at least 30 yards or three more than any other defense. And before you say, yeah but BLAKE BORTLES! Just know that the Steel Curtain let QB’s like Brett Hundley, this years non-elite version of Joe Flacco, and Deshone Kizer (against starters on D in week 17) come into Heinz Field and hang 30 points per game on you, you can’t automatically expect a shut down performance. Also know that the Steelers DEF continues to be banged up (thoughts and prayers to Ryan Shazier) with this week CB Artie Burns suffering a knee injury in practice and DL Stephon Tuitt leaving practice with his arm in a sling.
Numbers for Nerds:
1… that’s the number of wins the Jags had against playoff teams during their 10-6 regular season. Sure it came against the Steelers but AFC South teams still averaged -8.8% DVOA, the lowest of all eight divisions.
1… that’s the rank of JuJu Smith Schuster in DVOA amongst all WR’s. The stat, like all stats has its flaws, but that still pretty amazing for a rookie who only just turned 21.
Blake Bortles- Not saying it will happen, just saying that the only way the Jags win is if he plays well. The Steelers DEF has to and can be beaten by throwing the ball. Not sure he can do it, and not sure who will catch it, but if Kizer can get them for 300+ yards???
Le’Veon Bell- in this case we know he can do it but will the dysfunction, confusion, and impatience that seem to hit the Mike Tomlin/ Todd Haley Steelers let him? Can they just be patient, hand him the ball and let him exploit the Jags weakness against the run. Or will they launch bombs downfield into the teeth of the Jags excellent pass DEF?
The Pick: So you’re saying there’s a chance… Not really… Steelers 20 Jaguars 14… the heavy weight units slug it out for a while, in what’s actually going to be a boring game. But you just can’t trust Bortles not to make the crucial mistake.
Saints @ Vikings 4:40pm
The Story: Two dogs who have displayed new tricks… but who is for real?
Keys to the Game: This season the Saints stopped being just Drew Brees and developed an electric running game and a sound defense for the first time in years. Meanwhile with the Vikings, Case Keenum went from being a generally pretty crappy backup level QB to a guy who will probably get a few MVP votes. So which of these trends are sustainable because otherwise this looks like a matchup of two of the most balanced teams and another strength on strength matchup. NO OFF vs. the MIN DEF might be the best we’ll see all weekend as both units ranked #2 in DVOA. But don’t sleep on the other side of this game as both the MIN OFF and NO DEF are also top 10 units.
All the fancy analysis may actually undersell how well MIN is set up defensively to stop what NO wants to do. The Saints love to throw short, leading the league in passes within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. They can succeed at this because they also had the most plays (136) where a Saints OFF player broke at least 1 tackle. Playmakers like Alvin Kamara turned those bunts into home runs. However, The Vikings were the 4th best DEF at defending those short passes and had the fewest plays in the league (78) where they allowed a broken tackle. Here’s another terrifying state for NO, only 46 D-lineman in the NFL had 35 successful plays this year (tackles, turnovers, or tipped balls that stopped an offense from gaining successful yardage) and three of them played for Minnesota. Honestly, we could blog amazing stats about the MIN DEF all day. We’ll stop now and just say that NO isn’t really going to be able to successfully run the ball or dink and dunk. They will have to go retro and let Brees lead a downfield passing attack, just as they did in the wildcard round. Pro-bowler Michael Thomas is a star but he’ll be matched up against All-Pro CB Xavier Rhodes. That may be the best one on one matchup of the playoffs. They are going to need Ted Ginn to step up again. It could work as he should be matched up against Trae Wayne. Wayne’s is a good corner but he gave up his fair share of big plays, finishing 58th among corners with 7.6 yards allowed per target.
The story on the other side is shockingly pretty similar. We covered the NO DEF pretty well last week. They don’t miss tackles, led by Cam Jordan they get pressure on the QB and Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crowley are a top pair of CB’s. Is Keenan up to the challenge? Who knows? Since Week 10, he has completed 71.0 percent of his passes and averaged 7.8 yards per pass, with 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He hasn’t played that well since he was setting NCAA records at Houston. In his starts that came before this season he was a very different and much worse player (24 starts, sub-60 percent completion rate, less than 7 yards per pass, 24 touchdowns, 20 interceptions). Are we seeing a hot streak, history would say yes, but can he ride an excellent DEF, playmakers like Adam Thielen (91 catches 1276 yards) and Stefon Diggs (8 rec TDs) and home field to a win? Keenum may face his toughest challenge but QB’s have done more with less.
Numbers for Nerds:
2nd Down: Last week in the wild card game against CAR on second down, Brees was 11-of-12, 210 yards, with every completion gaining enough yards for a first down.
3rd Down: The Vikings allowed opponents to convert only 25.2 percent of third downs this year. That’s the lowest such mark for any defense since at least 1991.
Jerick McKinnon– He was one of 13 running backs this season to gain more than 400 yards receiving. Points are going to be hard to come by and we all saw Christian McCaffrey bust a long TD against these Saints.
Ted Ginn– He has never been known as Mr. Consistency, but another 80 yard TD would sure help a lot.
The Pick: The Dream was to be the first team to stay home all the way through the Super Bowl, but MINN will be packing their bags, for Philly… Vikings 17 Saints 14…This Vikes DEF is legit. Like Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer have Super Bowl Rings legit.