Special Super Bowl Edition – 2/2/18

The Super Bowl is here and the it gets the Sharp Football treatment as Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) of SharpFootballAnalysis.com and Evan Silva (@EvanSilva) of Rotoworld.com discuss every matchup and angle possible, along with a massive deep dive into all advanced metrics, personnel groupings, strengths on weaknesses and the elements that will decide this game.  They share their predictions for the game, along with prop bets.

Then a special guest, Bill “Krackman” Krackomberger (@BillKrackman), Vegas icon and pro sports bettor, joins the show to discuss what how he’s bet the game so far.  Krackman talks the Super Bowl side, total and shares a whole handful of props that he likes.  You don’t want to miss it!  Plus, get a huge discount when you join his website from this private page HERE.

Be sure to check out sharpfootballstats.com (on your desktop) for the advanced, visualized Strength of Schedule, the Sharp Box Score and other data tools.

Subscribe on iTunes and listen below:

The Secret to Beating Tom Brady is Universally Known, but Bill Belichick is a Genius

By Warren Sharp

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “The secret to beating Tom Brady is a strong pass rush that can get pressure with 4 and play solid coverage behind.”

Wow, I’m not sure about you, but I’ve heard that one before.  AD NAUSEAM.  Guess what, if you believe that one, here’s another one for you:  that will beat any team, and is much more difficult than it sounds:

“We’re going to have our 4 D-linemen beat their 5 O-linemen and pressure and sack their QB frequently, and then we’ll have our other 7 defenders play coverage against their 5 players (WRs/TEs/RBs).”

Yes, if you can beat 5 with 4, and use 7 to cover 5, guess what: it probably will work out well for you.  Against any team.  I get it, though.  It’s the “easy” analysis to cite against the Patriots.  It takes absolutely no work to look back at the Giants beating the Patriots in the Super Bowls from the 2007 and 2011 seasons and suggest that all a team needs to do is to pressure with 4, so strong defensive lines should have success.

It’s the easiest storyline to use against New England, so that is exactly what is suggested by the media.  Over and over and over.  It wouldn’t have been so excruciatingly painful if there weren’t two weeks of it heading into this game.  It wouldn’t have been as mind numbing had they not played the “Sacksonville” Jaguars the week before that, Tom Coughlin new franchise.

The problem with easy that often it’s also lazy.  And with laziness comes inaccuracy.

Here’s a funny contradiction:

It seems EVERYONE knows how to beat the Patriots, and EVERYONE knows the Eagles have the defensive line to do it.  Yet at the same time, EVERYONE thinks Bill Belichick is the best coach in the NFL, and is right up there with best of all time.

So if Belichick is smarter than most EVERYONE, don’t you think he knows what the Giants did to beat him in those two Super Bowls years ago?  Don’t you think he’s been trying to find a counter for that style?

I do.  I surely do.

And I surely think he found his counter….  it’s called the RB-pass.

The Jaguars last week had the Giants’ Tom Coughlin on staff.  They had arguably the best defensive line in the league.  They were “Sacksonville”.  They were the team to have the best shot at pulling off the Giants recipe.  So quick – what player led the Patriots in catches last week?

No one had more receptions than RB Dion Lewis (7).  Meanwhile, in a close game, the Patriots had other impediments to overcome.  Like Tom Brady’s skittish to start with 13-stitches on his throwing hand.  And the Patriots loss Rob Gronkowski before halftime.  And the Patriots need to operate in 11 personnel a lot because of the Gronkowski injury, which was the most inefficient way to attack the Jaguars pass defense.

The Patriots are greatness defined.  The Patriots have lost just 11 games since 2014 in which Brady played and which were non-week 17 games.  They averaged 22.4 ppg on offense in those games.  The NFL scoring average for all teams since 2014 is 22.4 ppg.  Yes, you can try to have a great pass rush.  But you also need to score points, and those 11 teams that beat Brady averaged over 31 ppg in those games.  So the Eagles better have their offense focused on scoring early and often, because expecting to beat the Patriots in a 17-13 game is highly unlikely.

But back to the genius, Bill Belichick and his RB-passes…. let’s take a walk down memory lane, back to the 2011 Super Bowl.

In the 2011 season’s Super Bowl against the Giants, the Patriots leading rusher was BenJarvus Green-Ellis.  Danny Woodhead was their receiving back, and he was 4/4 when targeted, for 42 yards and 1 TD in that game.  But as much as Woodhead has a cult following, he’s not the receiving RB that Dion Lewis or James White are.  And it was too obvious what the Patriots wanted to do when BGE left the game and Woodhead entered.  Belichick tried to keep the defense “honest” and run the ball some with Woodhead on the field, but Danny was 7 for 18 (2.6 YPC), and that just won’t cut it.

Since that 2011 Super Bowl, I’ll list out the Patriots playoff losses and the receiving stats from all RBs that hit the stat sheet (organized by season):

2012 vs BAL:

  • Shane Vereen – 2 for 22 yds
  • Danny Woodhead – 1 for 12 yds
  • Lead back = Stevan Ridley (no receptions)

2013 vs DEN:

  • Shane Vereen – 5 for 59 yds
  • Stevan Ridley (no receptions)
  • Lead back = LeGarrette Blount (no receptions)

2015 vs DEN:

  • James White – 5 for 45 yds
  • Brandon Bolden – 2 for 29 yds
  • Lead back = Steven Jackson (no receptions)

And that’s it.  Since 2011’s loss in the Super Bowl, the Patriots are 11-3 in the postseason, and those are the 3 losses.

The 2015 loss to the Broncos, their last loss in the playoffs, is of particular interest.  That is because of what happened to their RBs during the season.  So let’s back up to the final game of 2014:

After winning the Super Bowl in the 2014 season over the Seahawks (a game in which their leading receiver in catches was RB Shane Vereen, who caught 11 of 12 targets, and was the only RB on the roster to catch a target), the Patriots decided to add a dual threat RB who was as much of a receiving threat as a running threat.  So they added RB Dion Lewis, who played for the first time in 2 NFL seasons at the start of that 2015 season.

In that 2015 season, Lewis averaged 7.8 YPA though the air and 4.8 YPC on the ground.  Absolutely masterful.  But he tore his ACL in November, and was lost for the season.  The Patriots leading RB in terms of total yards that year was LeGarrette Blount.  However, in December Blount landed on IR with a left hip injury.  So the Patriots were without both of their best RBs.  And it showed in that Super Bowl, which was why they even added Steven Jackson to their roster.

The hilarious trivia, to show you how bad the team was set up for those 2015 playoffs, was that in their first playoff game that postseason:

The last season that the Patriots lost a playoff game, they kicked off that postseason with a game in which Tom Brady tied for the lead in rushing attempts (6) and Steven Jackson led the team in rushing yards, with 16 (2.67 YPC).

That’s one UGLY rushing backfield.

Bill Belichick knew what he needed for postseason success against strong pass rushes that the team inevitably would encounter.  He needed dual threat RBs.

In last year’s Super Bowl, RB James White led the team in targets (16) and receptions (14).

After last year’s Super Bowl win, knowing it’s a grueling season, Belichick thought back to 2015 and knew he wasn’t about to lose another Super Bowl because he didn’t have his RBs healthy.  He kept James White.  He kept Dion Lewis.  And he added Rex Burkhead as well as Mike Gillislee.  And those moves paid off.  Because indeed, those RBs have been banged up here and there throughout the season.  Mike Gillislee missed the second half of the season with a knee injury, and with all of the RBs healthy and Gillislee still not 100%, he might be a healthy scratch for the Super Bowl.  (And that’s fine, because he was insurance with the remaining backs healthy.)  Burkhead missed the tail end of the season and played in just 3 snaps against the Jaguars.  He should be healthier with 2 more weeks of rest.  Dion Lewis is healthy.  James White is healthy.

The Patriots enter this game with 3 solid receiving RBs that are all healthy. 

And that’s Belichick’s counterpunch.

“You say that great pass rushes beat the Patriots?  Well have fun dealing with my frequent drop backs, inviting your D-line, and then executing the fast pass game to my RBs, with 3 explosive and effective receiving threats, as your D-line wears out over the course of the game.”

It’s not as if the Eagles have been solid against RBs, either.

Here is what they’ve allowed to RB-pass offenses that rank in the top-10 in RB-Pass efficiency*:

  • MIN (10): 13/14, 71% success, 6.9 YPA, 75% success on early downs
  • ATL (7): 6/7, 43% success, 5.7 YPA, 50% success on early downs
  • SEA (6): 4/4, 50% success, 9.3 YPA, 50% success on early downs
  • LAR (5): 3/5, 60% success, 7.8 YPA, 60% success on early downs
  • WAS (2): 11/13, 69% success, 7.1 YPA, 82% success on early downs

Even some teams that rank close to the top 10 had success, such as:

  • NYG (12): 16/19, 58% success, 5.4 YPA, 67% success on early downs
  • ARI (13): 11/12, 42% success, 6.6 YPA, 83% success on early downs
  • KC (17): 3/3, 67% success, 9.3 YPA, 67% success on early downs

*I removed the Panthers from the analysis, because of how they use McCaffrey as a WR and the Eagles put their stronger outside CBs on him in coverage.

Where does the Patriots RB-pass offense fall into the mix on that list?

The Patriots rank as the #4 most successful RB-pass offense.  The most successful this Eagles defense has seen since the Redskins.  And Kirk Cousins shredded the Eagles defense with RB passes:

  • In their first meeting, Cousins went 3/4 on early down RB-targets, for 11 YPA and a 75% success rate.  On 3rd downs, he went 1/2 for 4 YPA and a 0% success rate.
  • The Redskins learned from that meeting, and wanted to target the RBs more on early downs in their second game against the Eagles.  So instead of only 4 targets, they targeted their RBs 7 times on early downs.  Cousins was 7/7, 86% success rate and 5.7 YPA.

The Patriots don’t have time to learn in game against Philadelphia before this game.  They likely already know they need to target their RBs on early downs.  It’s their secret to success against strong pass rushers.  It will be interesting to see the counter to the counter to the counter:  Jim Schwartz’s counter to Belichick’s RB-pass counter to Schwartz’s pass rush.

How could the Patriots get a lot out of their RB-passing?  How about trying to RB-pass on first down as a weapon of choice?  Why?

Because on first downs this year, the Eagles allow a 65% success rate on RB-passes. That ranks 29th in the league. The 4th worst.  To WRs they rank 4th best in success rate allowed (47%) and to TEs, 14th best (58%).  Their weakness on first down passes is the Patriots’ strength:

  • Dion Lewis averaged 6.5 YPA and a 59% success rate on first down passes
  • James White averaged 7.7 YPA and a 58% success rate on first down passes

This first down RB-pass would attack the Eagles defensive weakness right out of the gates. RB-passes on first down mess with the defensive line’s comfort and rhythm immediately.  Most lines on first down are accustomed to either stopping the run or rushing the QB.  Rarely (far too infrequently) do teams throw to their RBs on first down.  But most designed RB-passes invite the pass rush, and dump the ball before the pass rush has a chance to hit home. It wears out the pass rush while keeping the quarterback upright. And because of the nature of the play, it is easier to set up in no-huddle/hurry up the very next play, which keeps that same defensive line out on the field, without the opportunity to substitute.

While others surely have over the 2 weeks leading up to this game, let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that just because the Eagles have a good pass rush, they will wreck the Patriots offense.  It will be imperative the Patriots offensive line play great, there is no doubt.

But Bill Belichick has been hard at work building his offense to counter those strong pass rushes, and it looks like he just might have the most perfect stable of receiving RBs (perhaps in the entire NFL) on his roster to execute it.

The Secret to Running on the Patriots

By Warren Sharp

In studying up for the Super Bowl this past week, you may have reviewed the Patriots run defense by week, to see which teams fared the best against them on the ground.  You may have pulled up a webpage similar to this one, from Sharp Football Stats:

SB- Run OFF vs NEYou may have looked at it, and been a bit surprised to see the Raiders sitting atop the list.  After all, the Raiders were blown out by the Patriots and the Raiders ranked only 15th in rushing efficiency this year.  The Patriots played multiple top-10 rushing offenses on the season.  Most recently, they played the 8th ranked Titans run offense.  And they completely shut the Titans down.  So how could the Raiders do such damage?  How could they put up not just 5.2 YPC, but a 76% success rate on their runs?

Here is how:  the Patriots defense is particularly susceptible to runs out of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs).

This year they are allowing a 61% success rate and 6.0 YPC to offenses when they are running the ball out of 11 personnel.  These rankings are well worse than the NFL average of 47% success and 4.6 YPC out of 11.

And when these teams run out of shotgun from 11, they average 6.7 YPC and post a 59% success rate against New England.  The numbers don’t get much better for the Patriots even when stripping out potential garbage time.  When stripping out all runs where the offense was behind by over 10 points, the Patriots still allowed 6.6 YPC and a 56% success rate to 11 personnel in shotgun.

But it’s not just isolated to shotgun, as this year the Patriots still allowed a 64% success rate and 4.9 YPC to RBs-run from 11 personnel when under center.

So what does this mean for the Super Bowl?

The Eagles are one of the most run heavy teams from 11 personnel, recording nearly 60% of their total rushes on the year from 11 personnel.  The only teams  with a higher rate of runs in 11 personnel were the Raiders and Rams.  Apart from a bad Raiders team, the Patriots haven’t faced teams like this often.  For example, the Patriots last few opponents, in percentage of runs from 11 personnel, ranked:

  • JAC: 30%, #5 fewest
  • TEN: 20%, #1 fewest
  • NYJ: 51%, #19 fewest
  • BUF: 39%, #11 fewest
  • PIT: 49%, #15 fewest

And there are those Tennessee Titans.  The #8 ranked run offense, who couldn’t run the ball at all against New England in the Divisional round – those Titans run the least often from 11 personnel of any team in the league.

Jumping back to that bad Raiders team that recorded a 76% success rate against the Patriots defense, the highest the Patriots have allowed all season.  These runs were not isolated to the second half in garbage time.  Even in the first half, the Raiders gained 5.8 YPC and recorded an absolutely absurd 87% success rate on run plays.  A whopping 47% of first half runs actually resulted in first downs.  Marshawn Lynch averaged 6.1 YPC and recorded an 82% success rate over the course of the game.  And Jalen Richard recorded a 100% success rate while averaging 4.8 YPC.

I went back and re-watched the week 11 game against Oakland.  Oakland lined up in 11 personnel on 20 of their 21 rushes.  The one other rush came in 12 personnel.  It gained zero yards.

When the Raiders ran the ball in 11 personnel from shotgun, they gained 8.1 YPC and produced a 75% success rate.  Even when they ran from under center in 11 personnel, they produced an exceedingly strong 83% success rate, but gained a far more reasonable 3.7 YPC.

Breaking out Marshawn Lynch, as he’s more like the Jay Ajayi role:

  • 11 personnel, under center: 8 rushes, 88% success rate, 4.0 YPC
  • 11 personnel, in shotgun: 3 rushes, 67% success rate, 11.7 YPC

This is HUGE.  This is a massive advantage for the Eagles.  And absolutely no one is discussing it.  This could be a very key element of this game, so long as the Eagles do what they’ve been doing.  Because what they’ve been doing is the 3rd most runs out of 11 personnel this season.

Let’s examine other Patriots opponents to see how they fared when running the ball in 11 personnel (I’m removing QB runs from the mix, as NE played KC, CAR and BUF, all of which could scramble in this grouping).  I’ll list teams that had more than 1 run from 11, through the games charted to date (the first 3/4 of the season):

Pats run D vs personnel grouping2

The Raiders were discussed earlier for obvious reasons.  The massive takeaway from the table above is the bottom line (literally).

Removing any potential second half garbage time, the Patriots are allowing the following numbers in and out of 11 personnel:

  • In 11:   60% success, 6.6 YPC
  • Non-11: 36% success, 3.3 YPC

I went back to study their last game against the Jaguars.  I charted it, since it was not charted previously.  As I mentioned earlier, the Jaguars historically ran from 11 just 30% of the time, the 5th least of any team this year.  So they likely would not have fared well on the surface.  And sure enough, if you scan back to the first chart in the article, you will see that the Jaguars were successful on just 9 out of 30 runs.  A terrible 30%.  After this game, I wrote how the Jaguars royally cost themselves a shot in the game by absurdly predictable play calling in the 4th quarter.  They found themselves up by 10, with the ball, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, and they stuck their head in the dirt and hoped for the best.  So let’s ignore the 4th quarter and focus just on the first 3 quarters.  In the first 3 quarters, here were the results of 11 personnel runs vs non-11 personnel runs for the Jaguars:

  • In 11:  50% success, 6.5 YPC
  • Non-11:  31% success, 3.0 YPC

The Jaguars used non-11 personnel on 67% of their RB runs.  And they absolutely torched the Patriots when running from 11 personnel.  Here is a look at a selection of their runs from 11 personnel.  These runs gained 6 yards, 12 yards, 6 yards and 14 yards, and all graded as successful:

Now back to the Super Bowl.

The beauty of the rushing matchup for the Eagles is they don’t have to change much.  As we know from above, the Eagles are a heavy-11 team, meaning they use it frequently, especially with Foles.  They run from 11 often as a foundation of their offense.  They need not change anything from that perspective.  All they need to do is to emphasize Ajayi’s carries in 11, preferably from shotgun:

[For this next section, keep in mind that charting is not done through the final few weeks of the season, and Ajayi only started with the Eagles week 9.  Sample size is less than ideal, but we’ll work with what we have.]

Jay Ajayi takes most of his carries (approx. 67%) in 11 personnel.  When he’s in 11 personnel and running the ball, 72% of the time he’s doing so from shotgun.  And that’s when he’s extremely explosive.

In shotgun from 11 personnel, Ajayi is averaging a 54% success rate and a huge 12.2 YPC. 

To keep it simple for you and for the Eagles, as they finalize their game plan:

The Eagles already use a ton of 11 personnel.  They run often from 11 personnel.  Jay Ajayi is most dangerous when running from shotgun and when running from 11 personnel.  The Patriots allow a 60% success rate and 6.6 YPC to teams that run from 11 personnel, but approximately half of that when those same teams run from other personnel groupings.

If the Eagles want a chance to win the Super Bowl, it is in their extreme best interest to run Jay Ajayi MORE than expected in shotgun, from 11 personnel.