4th and Geaux: Saints vs. Rams edition

Robert Meachem is coming on strong. Despite few catches, he's one of the best receivers in the NFL.

We’ve debated back and forth just how good this Saints team is, and, regardless of how you feel about that, we’re headed toward the end of the season and (almost definitely) the playoffs. This stretch of schedule is crucial for the Saints. How they play over the next couple of weeks will be critical in determining the Saints’ playoff fates. If the Saints win the games they should win, then they will earn either the 1st overall seed (if the Falcons stumble) or the 5th seed (if the Falcons don’t stumble). That 5th seed is critical, because the team that earns it gets to travel to the NFC West in round 1 of the playoffs. If you can’t be at home, then you want to be traveling west. I guess that means that this week’s game very well could be a playoff preview…who’d a thunk it?

It’s time for 4th and Geaux.

An End to the Negativity

In yesterday’s column, I spent a bit of time trying to figure out how good the Saints were compared to the rest of the NFC and NFL. The answer appears to be pretty good, but not elite. I’m going to spend this segment looking at just how good this Saints team is, especially in comparison to past teams.

We are in the golden age of Saints teams

To figure out how good this team is compared to other Saints teams, I looked at two power rankings systems: Football Outsiders’ DVOA (which you can read about in yesterday’s article) and Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS). I didn’t use SRS in yesterday’s column because I don’t read the sight regularly. You can find the full explanation of SRS right here. However, the gist of the SRS is this: a team’s simple rating is equal to their average margin of victory (or defeat) plus the average of their opponent’s SRS scores. The actual calculation is a little nerdy, but essentially, average teams will have an SRS of 0, the best teams will usually be in the low teens, and the worst teams in the low negative teens.

I chose DVOA and SRS simply because those stats are available going back to 1993 (SRS actually goes back farther, but I wanted to have 2 systems to compare). I wish that DVOA went farther back, because the last good Saints teams were from 1988-1992, so it’d be nice to compare them. Maybe some other time.

This table has a comparison of the two stats going back to 1993. The DVOA rank column is simply where that year ranks compared to all of the other years. So the best Saints team since 1993 according to DVOA was 2009, so it’s ranked #1. The worst Saints team since 1993 according to DVOA was 1999, so it’s ranked #18 (thanks, Ditka). The SRS rank column does the same thing, but for SRS. The average rank is just the average of the DVOA and the SRS rankings.

DVOA DVOA Rank SRS SRS Rank Avg Rank
1993 -4 9 -1.3 9 9
1994 -3.3 8 -3.6 13 10.5
1995 -3.2 7 -2.2 11 9
1996 -25.1 16 -8.1 17 16.5
1997 -26.9 17 -7.4 16 16.5
1998 -15.7 13 0.1 7 10
1999 -39 18 -1.3 10 14
2000 1.5 6 0.9 6 6
2001 -8.6 11 -4.8 14 12.5
2002 4.8 5 2.4 4 4.5
2003 -4.4 10 -0.3 8 9
2004 -19.5 14 -5.6 15 14.5
2005 -22.5 15 -11.1 18 16.5
2006 6.6 4 4 2.5 3.25
2007 -9 12 -2.5 12 12
2008 9.9 3 4 2.5 2.75
2009 23.5 1 10.8 1 1
2010 12.6 2 1.8 5 3.5

 

Looking at that table, this is one of the handful of best teams in the last 18 years. DVOA has them ranked #2 behind last year’s Super Bowl champs, and SRS has them ranked #5. That’s really pretty good. 

It gets more fun, though, when you sort the table by average ranking. Here are the same stats, sorted by average ranking:

DVOA DVOA Rank SRS SRS Rank Avg Rank
2009 23.5 1 10.8 1 1
2008 9.9 3 4 2.5 2.75
2006 6.6 4 4 2.5 3.25
2010 12.6 2 1.8 5 3.5
2002 4.8 5 2.4 4 4.5
2000 1.5 6 0.9 6 6
1993 -4 9 -1.3 9 9
1995 -3.2 7 -2.2 11 9
2003 -4.4 10 -0.3 8 9
1998 -15.7 13 0.1 7 10
1994 -3.3 8 -3.6 13 10.5
2007 -9 12 -2.5 12 12
2001 -8.6 11 -4.8 14 12.5
1999 -39 18 -1.3 10 14
2004 -19.5 14 -5.6 15 14.5
1996 -25.1 16 -8.1 17 16.5
1997 -26.9 17 -7.4 16 16.5
2005 -22.5 15 -11.1 18 16.5

 

The top 4 Saints teams by average DVOA & SRS ranking have all played in the last 5 years. So, whether or not you think this year’s team is one of the best in the NFL or somewhere behind that, we can all agree that the last few years have been wonderful, and we’ve had a fun team to root for, with the picture of a superstar quarterback, the most innovative offense in the NFL, and a defense that has been entertaining, if nothing else. This team fights like no other, combating through injury, bad luck (well, not as much last year), and some great opponents without backing down.

These are the good days, folks, perhaps only matched by the Dome Patrol-era Saints*. Let’s not forget that.

*One critical difference between this team and the Dome Patrol teams: we don’t have to deal with the Montana/Rice/Young 49ers. That helps a lot.

Last Week in Review

At this point, last week’s game has been covered pretty well, but I’d like to spend just a second discussing the crucial play in the game, "No-Brainer Freeze". No-Brainer Freeze is the name of the "draw them offsides" play that the Saints called at the end of the game. I can think of a bunch of times that those sorts of plays have caused the offense to false start, but I can’t think of hardly any times in which it’s actually caused the defense to jump. That raises a couple of good points:

(1)Fear caused that play to work. The reason that the Bengals jumped offsides is because the idea that the Saints would go for it was completely credible. Why? Because the Payton/Brees Saints are one of the most aggressive teams in the NFL. This is a good thing (because NFL coaches tend to be waaaaaay too conservative), and it has given the Saints a bit of a reputation. The Bengals (or at least the poor chump who jumped offsides) were worried that the Saints would actually run a play, and that tension caused the disastrous penalty.

(2)The Saints probably should have gone for it. Well, assuming No-Brainer Freeze didn’t work. The Saints were on the road, playing a Bengals team that had scored about 367 unanswered points. This was an overtime loss waiting to happen. If No Brainer Freeze had failed, I think the Saints should have called time out, lined up, and run a play on 4th down, rather than risk it on a coin flip, the Saints defense stopping the Bengals (if they lost the overtime coin toss), and Hartley making 2 field goals (one to tie, one to win in OT).

You can calculate the odds on all of this fairly easily (teams tend to make well over 50% of 4th and  2 attempts), but the answer you’ll get really depends on the assumptions that you make. I suspect that the odds of victory were slightly more in the Saints favor if they went for it than if they kicked a field goal there, but it doesn’t really matter. Great execution on the fake play, and then a fantastic job by Brew Drees and company scoring the touchdown.

I’ve got a box full of letters…

Do you have a question for the mailbag? Leave it in the comments or send it via email to stuart (at) whodatreport (dot) com.

Your constant pessimism and cynicism is such a buzz kill. How long have you been a Saints fan? This is only the second time in history with back to back winning season. Have Saints put us on edge a few times? Sure, have they let us down against bad teams? Hell yeah!! But do you remember the times when we lost to bad teams and lost badly to good teams? Do you remember in 02 when the 9-4 Saints went the Cincy and got stumped by the 1-12 Bengals? Isn't it nice to finally have a team that wins those games? 

Also, you said "I don't think Chris Ivory is good" What the hell? This kid leads all rookie running backs in yardage and ypc and is tied for TD's. He posted the longest rush 55yards, since Deuce in 2003. This kids is a beast. Is he a world beater, of course not. But with more grooming and conditioning, he could be a very dangerous running back in this league. We haven't had a runner like him since Deuce before the injuries. -Ryan, via email

Ryan is one of the folks who inspired me to lose the negativity this week. Of course this is a wonderful Saints team! I don’t think they’re in the cream of the NFL crop, but I think they have a chance to make a run for the title…what else can you ask for? So, I’ll remain realistic about the Saints, but I’ll try not to be so negative.

The cynicism…well, that’s probably here to stay. But, let’s focus on the changes we can make, right?

I hope that I’ve taken care of the first part of your question with the opening to this column. Let’s look at Chris Ivory.

First of all, "Tusk" is having a good year. I’d probably rank him as a top-10 back right now. A quick glance at Football Outsiders’ running back rankings shows that they have him ranked as the 12th best back in the league on a per-play basis. That’s good, especially for a rookie. His yards per carry is excellent at 5.17. He leads the league in "Success Rate" with 59%*

*Success rate basically scores each run as a success or failure. On 1st down, a run needs to get 40% of the yards required for a 1st down to be a success. On 2nd down, a run needs to get 60% of the required yards to be a success, and on 3rd or 4th down, it needs to get 100% of the required yards to be a success. These benchmarks change slightly if a team is ahead or behind in a 4th quarter to account for trying to "run out the clock". 

So, clearly, Ivory is having a good year. However, his total value is hampered by two things. First, he’s fumbled a lot. 4 fumbles in 123 carries is not acceptable. Now, there are signs that he’s started to clean that up, but we’ll see.

Second, the guy ain’t a receiver. He’s caught 1 pass this year. In our offense, that’s a bit of a problem. I’m not sure how he is on pass protection, but most rookies struggle with that. If you have a running back who can’t catch and can’t protect in our offense, you have a running back of limited value.

So, we have a running back with great rushing stats, too many fumbles, who isn’t a receiving threat and probably can’t pick up the blitz that well (correct me in the comments if I’m wrong). I’d call that a decent back in our offense, but not a good back. Now, in 2 years, he may be a great back. We’ll see how he develops.

The thing is, though, I don’t think it really matters. Running backs in our offense are rather interchangeable, because the secret to our running game is Drew Brees and the offensive line. As a general rule, I think our runners do well because of the threat of the pass, not vice versa. There’s a reason that we keep finding undrafted free agent running back gems: it’s because our offense doesn’t need a great running back to succeed.

A quick note on Deuce, my favorite Saint ever. In my opinion, Deuce’s best year running the ball, by far, was 2006, after he recovered from the first knee injury. Deuce had lost some of the shiftiness at that point, but that was a good thing: he ran in a much more straightforward manner and did a lot less Reggie Bush-type dancing. He still had the speed and strength, but was forced to become a smarter, more decisive runner. If Deuce had run that way his whole career (and avoided the injuries), I think he’d be Canton-bound.

Sizing up the Opponent

The Rams are looking like they might be the cream of the NFC West crop, which is like saying you’re the winner of the Iowa State Fair Mullet Contest. It’s sort of impressive, I guess, but we’re laughing at you, not with you.

However, this is the NFL, and even the stinkiest mullet can sometimes be too big a fish to fry*. So, do the Saints need to be too worried about the Rams? Let’s break it down.

*What happened in that sentence? Jeeze, get it together, Stuart

Saints Statpoints

Saints offense vs. Rams defense

Before we get to the specifics of the Saints and Rams’ teams, I thought I’d take a look at how the Saints offense has performed over the year. After all, we’re now 3/4 of the way through the season. So, here’s a graph of the Saints’ offensive aYPA from week-to-week. Remember, aYPA is yards per attempt after counting sacks as passing attempts for negative yards and penalizing 60 yards per interception. AYPA is a pretty good stat, but it doesn’t directly account for quality of opponent, so remember that as you look at the graph.

Saints_week_14_aypa_medium

The big black line in the middle is the season-long trend. While the trend is that the Saints offense has been performing better as the season has progressed, the trend isn’t that strong or statistically significant, so you can’t take much from it. It might just be random fluctuations or statistical "noise".

However, if you look at the last 4 weeks, the offense has been performing better and better, although the teams they played are either middling on defense (Carolina and Cincinnati) or downright bad on defense (Dallas and Seattle). So is it genuine improvement or just feasting on ineptitude? Hard to say.

St. Louis brings a defense that is about the same overall quality as Carolina’s (19th in the league, per both Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats). They’re a little bit below average against the rush and slightly worse against the pass (19th and 22nd in the league, per Football Outsiders).

The Saints will have a chance to make some plays against this secondary. CB Ronald Bartell may or may not be available for the game, and several other corners are nursing injuries. This bodes well for the Saints’ bevy of receivers. Another thing that bodes well for the Saints’ receivers: the Rams have been solid against primary receivers this year, but absolutely horrid against #2 receivers. The Rams have given up an average of 56 yards per game to #2 receivers, one of the worst rates in the league*. The Rams are pretty bad at defending against tight ends (23rd in the league, per Football Outsiders’ defensive stats) and running backs (28th in the league), as well, so this looks to be another time when it’s great to have Tee Ball Brees to spread the ball around.

*I don’t know what’s going on with Houston: they’re giving up over 80 yards per game to #2 receivers. Time to spend some draft picks on the secondary?

The good news is that (largely thanks to Drew Brees), we’ve got us some receivers and tight ends. If you look at Football Outsiders’* advanced stats, we have 3 of the top 25 receivers in the league in Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, and Lance Moore. Meachem has really been coming on lately; he has the highest catch rate in the league (74%) and has returned to his role as a scoring threat: he has 5 touchdowns in only 42 passes thrown toward him. Think about that…over 10% of the passes thrown to Meachem (and over 15% of his receptions) are for touchdowns. That’s something else for a guy who rode the pine for his first couple of years in the league.

*I know I keep quoting them, but the breakdowns they offer FOR FREE! are unmatched anywhere on the web.

Brees will have to get rid of the ball quickly, however: the Rams have been good at sacking the quarterback this year, with an adjusted sack rate (which takes into account passing situation, etc.) of 7%, good for 8th in the league.

One other injury note for the Rams: LB Na’il Diggs is out for the year with a torn pectoral muscle (ouch), further weakening the defense.

Saints defense vs. Rams offense

Here’s a similar graph, showing the Saints defense’s aYPA allowed for each game. Remember, for defensive aYPA, the smaller the number, the better the defense has done:

Saints_week_14_defensive_aypa_medium

So, the season-long trend for the defense is that the defense is getting worse, but again, the trend isn’t very meaningful or statistically significant.

Turning to the Rams, their offense just isn’t very good right now. Sam Bradford is having an excellent rookie season, but the offense is so conservative and the people around him are so underwhelming that it doesn’t really matter. They have no receivers of note, and Steven Jackson hasn’t really been very good. He may have a lot of yards (985), but really hasn’t been very effective. He’s 9th in the league in yards, but 2nd in the league in carries. His average per carry is poor (3.7). These stats indicate that he hasn’t been particularly good this year, although a lot of that might be due to the Rams’ poor offensive line run blocking (which is in the bottom third of the league per Football Outsiders).

The Rams offensive line and/or Sam Bradford have been pretty good at pass protection, though: they rank 8th in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 5.2%. This might be a problem for the Saints’ defensive line, which is 26th in the league in creating sacks. Bradford is a good quarterback in the making: if we give him time to throw the ball, it’s quite possible that he could light up our pass defense, which is only average.

I’m tempted to say that we’ll be fine because Gregg Williams will come up with some crazy scheme to confuse the rookie quarterback, but our experience with Max Hall and the first game against Pickles Clausen tells me otherwise.

However, we should be just fine. Watch out for Steven Jackson, harass Bradford, and hope the offense scores enough to make the Rams’ conservative game plans work against them.

Beer of the Week: Because sober analysis requires good beer

Sorry to say, the beer of the week is on hiatus this week: I’ve written close to 10,000 words for CSC this week and didn’t have time to get to a beer review. However, St. Louis is home to Anheuser-Busch, so here’s a tip: friends don’t let friends drink Budweiser. Support small business and drink craft-brewed beer!

(Although the people at New Belgium Brewery in Ft. Collins Colorado went out of their way to remind visitors that there’s a time and place for macro-brew)

That was way too long...could you just give me a one-paragraph summary and prediction?

Sure. First of all, we’re positive this week! The Saints are one of the best Saints teams ever. Additionally, they should be able to handle the Rams this week (in what might be a playoff preview!), thanks, as usual, to Drew Brees and the offense. The Saints defense should be able to take care of the Rams offense, but they’ll probably have to do so without generating a strong pass rush against the Rams’ stout offensive line. The point spread is high for this game (about 10 points), and the Saints are on the road but the Saints are at home and I think that they can probably cover the 10 points. If they don’t, though, I’ll try my best to be positive about it next week!

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