We’ve been through all the narratives: the four fantastic quarterbacks, the four not-great defenses, the never-ending treadmill of success in New England, the ongoing inquiry into whether or not Aaron Rodgers is, in fact, human. So, it’s time to dig into the numbers. Here are four figures that illuminate a core issue or strength for all of the Super Bowl semifinalists.
The stat: Opposing offenses score touchdowns on 73 percent of their red zone trips.
The Atlanta Falcons are supposed to be a “bend, don’t break” defense. Dan Quinn’s philosophy centers on not getting beat deep by keeping everything in front of you and then pursuing and tackling. His team may give up a lot of yards, the thinking goes, but they’ll come through in the red zone. Yeah … about that: The Falcons did indeed give up a lot of yards during the regular season (5,939 to be exact, 25th in the NFL), but instead of shutting drives down once teams crossed their 20-yard line, they more or less just threw their hands up and gave in.
The Falcons ended the season with the worst red zone defense in the NFL. For some context, the Giants — the best red zone defense this year — gave up touchdowns just 40 percent of the time teams got inside the 20.
Now, most of the time, this hasn’t mattered, as Atlanta’s incredible offense has been able to score at a higher rate than the defense conceded. But this week, Aaron Rodgers comes to town — and remember that Giants defense? Rodgers and Co. dropped 38 points on them in the wild-card round.
Green Bay finished the season 10th in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on 61 percent of its red zone trips. But during the Packers’ six-game undefeated run to close the regular season, only the Falcons (18) scored more red zone touchdowns than Green Bay’s 17. Fittingly, Matt Ryan and Rodgers both threw 10 touchdowns and zero picks inside the 20-yard line over that stretch. One or two well-timed red zone stands could decide which NFC team is still playing two weeks from now.
Green Bay Packers
The stat: Their defense registered a 102.6 percent DVOA on passes to the deep right.
For Green Bay’s 22nd-ranked pass defense, its greatest weakness has been the big play. Per Football Outsiders, the Packers finished the season ranked 23rd in the NFL at defending against the deep ball. They also surrendered a total of 56 pass plays of 20-plus yards (fourth worst in the league). Except, the Packers weren’t vulnerable across the board: Green Bay finished with the best coverage mark in the league for passes to the deep left (with a negative-72.3 percent DVOA). But they were absolutely terrible pretty much everywhere else, finishing 19th on throws to the deep middle (65.2 DVOA) and dead last on passes to the deep right.
Teams that threw to the deep right against the Packers connected on 26 of 43 attempts for a league-best 60 percent completion rate and a league-best average gain of 19.3 yards. It’s hard to assign individual blame for the Packers issues in that area, because it hasn’t really mattered who Green Bay lines up on the right — whether it’s LaDarius Gunter, Damarious Randall, or Quinten Rollins. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett, who are tasked with help over the top from the safety spots, haven’t helped a whole lot either.
The Falcons, meanwhile, rank no. 1 in completion percentage (64.5) and average gain (21.9 yards) to the deep right this year. So expect Kyle Shanahan to attack Green Bay’s area of weakness relentlessly — especially with Julio Jones’s all-world speed. After doing the same with Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant, Gunter will likely follow Jones around. Not that it’s a good idea: Gunter struggled badly against Dez Bryant, surrendering seven catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns against Dallas last weekend.
It doesn’t make much sense that Green Bay defends so well on the left side and so disastrously on the right. Quarterbacks typically throw better to the right — but not this much better. Can the Packers will be able to transfer some of the left-side magic across the field? Probably not — but any arguments in favor of either defense in this matchup amount to little more than a shrug.
New England Patriots
The stat: Tom Brady is sacked 10.6 percent of the time he’s pressured.
After a conservative start to the year netted them just eight sacks in seven games, the Steelers have have generated consistent pressure by blitzing at a higher rate (43 percent) than all but two teams since their Week 8 bye. It’s helped their sack numbers skyrocket, as the Steelers grabbed an NFL-high 30 sacks from Week 9 through the end of the regular season. After watching Houston occasionally confound Brady last week with a heavy dose of unpredictable blitzes (they sent five or more rushers on 37 percent of snaps), expect Pittsburgh to steal a page from the Texans’ book then take it up another notch.
New England boasts a solid pass-protecting offensive line under the expert tutelage of Dante Scarnecchia, and it finished sixth in adjusted sack rate on the year. But against an enterprising attack like the Steelers’, which can send a blitzer from anywhere on the field, they’ll need a quarterback that can deftly maneuver at the last second to prevent a hurry or hit from turning into a sack. Fortunately for the Patriots, they have one of the best.
Per Pro Football Focus, Tom Brady was sacked just 10.6 percent of the time he faced pressure this season. This isn’t because he’s simply getting the ball out quickly on every snap, either: Brady finished the year just 21st in time to throw per snap (2.57 seconds). Rather, the league-low number is representative of how good he is at subtly side-stepping or eluding pass rushers before stepping up into the pocket to make a throw. He’s never scrambling away from pressure, but he also never gets sacked. Like a great point guard, Brady knows where everyone on the field is at all times. If he sees an imminent hit coming, he either avoids it, delivers the ball to a quick-outlet receiver, or throws it away to live another day.
Expect the Steelers to put Brady’s league-best sack percentage to the test, though. If they can deliver a few hits or even come close, it may rattle Brady enough that he’ll make a few mistakes. Last week, the Texans seemed to do just that, as Brady threw a pair of picks and finished with a 68.6 passer rating.
The stat: The defense posted a 19.9 percent DVOA vs. opposing no. 1 receivers.
Julian Edelman committed a playoff faux pas this week when he provided the Steelers with some bulletin board material, but maybe he knew he’d be able to back up the trash talk. The Steelers finished the regular season dead last in coverage against opponents’ no. 1 receivers, per Football Outsiders’ tracking.
The Pittsburgh defense gave up five catches for 77 yards to Travis Kelce last week and surrendered 11 catches for 102 yards in the wild-card round to Jarvis Landry. Terrelle Pryor caught seven passes for 94 yards in Week 17; Steve Smith went for seven catches, 79 yards, and a touchdown in Week 16; Brandon LaFell caught seven balls for 91 yards for an A.J. Green–less Bengals offense in Week 15; Sammy Watkins led all Buffalo receivers in Week 14 with four catches for 54 yards and a touchdown in heavy snow; and Odell Beckham caught 10 passes for 100 yards in Week 13.
Since Rob Gronkowski went down, Edelman has become New England’s no. 1 option, and he leads the NFL in receiving yards per game (98.3) since Week 9. He posted team highs in receptions (eight), targets (13), and receiving yards (137) against the Texans last week, and he’s likely to be a big part of the Patriots game plan again this week. Belichick and Brady have made their careers off of finding a vulnerability in a defense and exploiting it all game long.
A lot of the time, that means New England will reach into their bag of tricks to feature some part-time role player as the center of their offensive attack, but this time, it looks like one of New England’s strengths lines right up with Pittsburgh’s biggest weakness.