How Roster Depth Propelled the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl: Part II

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Connor Barwin spent four seasons as one of the Philadelphia Eagles’ top defenders and made the Pro Bowl in 2014 before becoming a salary-cap casualty in March. But neither side held any hard feelings. In fact, Barwin was prepared to sell his buddy on playing in Philly less than a month later.

Chris Long needed a job after winning last year’s Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. So he spoke to Barwin and did what anyone would do – he cold-called the Eagles, landed a contract, then donated his salary to charity and played the entire regular season for free.

That unconventional process has Long preparing to face his former team in Super Bowl LII, with an assist going to Barwin. And the reality is, not much of the Eagles’ run to the NFC title has been what most would call normal.

We began noting this in Part I of this two-part series that focused on the offensive side of the ball. We’ll now take a deep look into how Philadelphia’s defense overcame injuries of its own and relied on some unexpectedly solid performances to become one of the top units in the league.

There’s no overlooking Long, who’s made major contributions to a defensive line group that goes seven deep with everyone playing a specific role – from the veteran Long down to rookie Derek Barnett. The reserve pair contributed to two of the most important and momentum-swinging plays in the Eagles’ 38-7 rout of Minnesota in the NFC championship game.

Long reached Case Keenum in the first quarter and hit his arm as he threw, leading to a wobbly duck that Patrick Robinson returned 50 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 7. Then in the second, Barnett strip-sacked Keenum at the Eagles’ 16-yard line before Long recovered the fumble, leading to Nick Foles’ 53-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery and a 21-7 lead.

Getting to the quarterback is more than just recording a sack. It’s part of the reason the Eagles also finished with one of the league’s best pass defenses, which we’ll get to in a minute. And the depth of the defensive line became a true asset following the offseason release of Barwin, a standout linebacker who recorded 26.5 sacks over his final three seasons with the Eagles.

Brandon Graham recorded a team-high in sacks, but Fletcher Cox finished with the best percentage of pressures per rush opportunity at 11.7 percent, which is nearly two percentage points above the league average for a defensive tackle.

STATS X-Info data ranked Cox as the NFL’s second-best pass-rushing tackle behind only the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald. Graham ranked as the No. 3 edge run-stuffer and Timmy Jernigan as the No. 3 defensive tackle stuffing the run. Those rankings aren’t made by placing some arbitrary number that supposedly rates performance. It takes a complicated propriety model STATS developed combining multiple advanced metrics to arrive at those conclusions.

Among the variables in run-stuff rating is how often a certain player is able to redirect an obvious run design and cause a running play to bust. In the case of Cox’s pass-rusher ranking, STATS takes into account that not every dropback presents a rush opportunity.

The play above shows Keenum releasing the ball in only 1.9 seconds, which falls under the threshold for QB release time to count as a rush opportunity for the opponent. This did not count as a rush opportunity in STATS’ data.

This play, however, did count as a rush opportunity for Philadelphia, and Keenum was able to get a pass off. The completion came during the Vikings’ opening drive that concluded with linebacker Najee Goode getting beat for a touchdown. But a third-string player getting burned shouldn’t be viewed as a total failure given the unique situation he was in.

Jordan Hicks, who called the defensive signals and directed the unit, originally was supposed to be in that spot, but he tore his right Achilles on Oct. 23 after having five interceptions in 2016. The Eagles signed former Baltimore Ravens starter Dannell Ellerbe as a replacement, but he suffered a hamstring injury and sat out the NFC title game.

Even despite missing Hicks, a playmaker who is excellent in pass coverage, for a majority of the season, the Eagles still finished with the lowest burn percentage in the NFL thanks to a deep defensive backfield and solid linebacker core that combined to tie for fourth in the league with 19 interceptions.

STATS X-Info calculates a burn against a targeted defender when the opposing player makes a catch. Eagles defenders were burned only 42.07 percent of the time during the regular season. That number, however, takes into account much more than a simple reception conceded at any point in the game.

STATS’ model again factors in a multitude of advanced metrics, including game situation. Burns and passing yards against – as well as the lack of burns and yards against – during, say, a one-possession game in the second quarter are weighted more in the STATS model than any that occur during a 21-point fourth-quarter blowout, for example. This allows for the numbers to balance, rather than a player being penalized for allowing a catch when the situation calls for the defense to sag off or when the offense is throwing at will to make up a large deficit.

Veteran safety Corey Graham intercepted Keenum in such a situation in the fourth quarter of the NFC title game, helping bring the Eagles to within one victory of their first championship since 1960. Graham signed a one-year deal with the Eagles prior to the season after Buffalo cut him, accepting a backup role after starting every game the previous two seasons with the Bills.

Carefully piecing together this Eagles team brought together a unique combination of talent. It’s still a tough sell on some considering Philadelphia is preparing to play its third straight postseason game as the underdog. But everyone has been accepting of their role, and they’re one victory away from the ultimate reward.

Revisting the Nick Foles Blueprint for Success

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When Carson Wentz tore his ACL six weeks ago, we wrote about what the Eagles could and should do to help Nick Foles have success in his absence as the backup took charge of the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

The blueprint the Minnesota Vikings laid out for Case Keenum — and the subsequent success they had this season – was outlined in that post as well, because nobody was talking about Keenum with an asterisks next to his name as a backup quarterback after he kept winning week after week.

Fast forward to now, and Foles has his team in the Super Bowl after thoroughly outplaying Keenum and the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. If you remember, Keenum took Foles’ starting job with the St. Louis Rams two seasons ago. It hasn’t been all good for Foles since replacing Wentz, though, as his regular-season numbers resembled what he put up during that dismal year with the Rams.

Before Foles plays in the biggest game of his life, let’s go back into the outline that was laid out within that article six weeks ago and see what has worked for Foles, what hasn’t worked, and what might work in the Super Bowl.

From the December 15 article:

What the Vikings have done well this season is allow Keenum to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers quickly and let them do the damage.

Foles and the Eagles didn’t do a great job of this during the last four weeks of the regular season. According to STATS X-Info data, about 65 percent of Foles’ throws were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage during that time, which is roughly five percentage points lower than Keenum during the regular season. On top of that, Foles only completed 65 percent of those throws, while Keenum completed 75 percent.

Widen the scope of Foles’ numbers during the regular season and it’s not any better. He only completed 48 percent of throws 11-20 yards down the field and didn’t complete a single pass of 21-plus yards.

However, during the postseason the Eagles have gotten the ball out of Foles’ hands earlier and in direct correlation with that, they have had a lot more success. Foles has joined Joe Montana as the only two quarterbacks in postseason history to complete 75 percent of their throws in consecutive games.

Foles’ release time was less than two seconds on 23 percent of his throws from Weeks 14-17. That number has spiked to 38 percent of his throws in two postseason games.

A lot of that has had to do with the abundance of screen passes he has thrown in the playoffs. In 97 regular season throws, eight came behind the line of scrimmage. In 63 playoff throws, 15 have been behind the line of scrimmage. Jay Ajayi has been a large beneficiary of that, hauling in six catches for 70 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Corey Clement has three catches for 19 yards, Zach Ertz has three for 17 yards, and Nelson Agholor has added two for 16.

Nick Foles has been much better in the postseason. (Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

Adam Thielen has emerged as one of the best receivers in the NFL in 2017…Foles didn’t have anybody like Thielen in St. Louis. He did in 2013 with Philadelphia when he was throwing the ball to LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson…and he will again now with Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz.

As much as Foles has relied on the screen game during the playoffs, Jeffery and Ertz have made a big impact downfield in the passing game (Minnesota fans can’t get the image of Jeffery waltzing wide open into the end zone out of their heads). Foles had a tough time pushing the ball downfield during the regular season partly because his work in the short game wasn’t exactly lethal. But with an uptick in production around the line of scrimmage during the playoffs, it’s opened up the deep portion of the field for Foles to take calculated shots. That has translated to four completions on nine attempts (he was 0 for 9 in the regular season) for 172 yards and two touchdowns on throws 21-plus yards downfield.

Jeffery and Ertz have also combined for 15 clutch receptions this postseason — a reception resulting in a first down or touchdown – with Torrey Smith adding six more, giving Foles a number of reliable targets at each level of the passing game.

When you add in the rushing attack from both teams…and defenses…both Foles and Keenum have a very similar — very strong — supporting cast around them.

Possibly Foles’ biggest key to his success is the ability to hand the ball off to guys like LeGarrette Blount and Ajayi. Blount is as dangerous as ever in the red zone, scoring twice this postseason, and Ajayi has gained 127 yards.

And the Philadelphia defense has been the best postseason unit, by far. Of the four conference championship teams, the Philadelphia defense led in rush yardage per game (78), pass yardage per game (240.5), total yardage per game (318.5), passing yards per attempt (5.7), and QB rating (73.6).

If (Foles) can get the ball out of his hands quickly…he can put up numbers similar to Keenum’s: 96.2 rating, 7.4 yards/attempt, 2.6 TD-INT ratio. If Foles does that, we could still see an Eagles-Vikings matchup in the NFC Championship game.

Well, we got that Eagles-Vikings matchup in the NFC Championship game. During the end of the regular season, the Eagles success was despite Foles, however. During the playoffs, though, and especially against the Vikings, it was because of him. How do Foles’ postseason numbers compare to those of Keenum’s listed above? He has a 122.1 rating, 9.49 yards/attempt, and has three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Don’t be too quick on the draw with those “Brady vs. the Backup” headlines. The Eagles are a complete team, and Foles is a big part of that.

STATS DFS Projections: NBA Locks, Fades and Favorite Plays for Thursday, Jan. 25

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Hello, readers and fantasy players. With the fantasy football season essentially over, I wanted to highlight our NBA daily projections – both that we have them, and that they can help you win in DFS.

I’ll be running through Thursday’s four-game NBA slate, pointing out which players to roster and which to fade. Keep a few things in mind, though.

First of all, there are tons of late scratches and injuries that impact NBA projections on a day-to-day basis. I’ll try to point out on Twitter later in the day how some of the advice from this article may have changed based on those.

Second, there are even more data points and moving parts if I discuss every DFS site, so I’ll be sticking to DraftKings only. Third, when I say somebody is a “fade,” that doesn’t mean you should craft 100 out of 100 lineups without them, but just maybe avoid them in cash games and lower your exposure in multi-entry GPPs. This is my first time writing one of these this year, so if you’d like to see something different or additional, please feel free to provide some feedback.

Unless you’re simply calculating an optimal lineup and plugging it in, Step 1 tends to be figuring out who to build your lineup around. Typically, there is a bevy of DFS superstars from which to choose, but Thursday, there are just two. Let’s look at our projected stat-line for each stud, compared to their season averages:

Russell Westbrook (Thursday): 25.7 Pts, 9.5 Reb, 10.1 Ast, 1.8 Stl, 0.2 Blk
Russell Westbrook (season): 24.9 Pts, 9.6 Reb, 10.0 Ast, 2.0 Stl, 0.2 Blk

Kevin Durant (Thursday): 24.9 Pts, 6.7 Reb, 5.2 Ast, 0.8 Stl, 2.2 Blk
Kevin Durant (season): 25.9 Pts, 6.9 Reb, 5.6 Ast, 0.9 Stl, 2.1 Blk

Westbrook is projected for nearly his season averages (and actually more points), while Durant is projected for a tick below average across the board, with all of his star teammates likely to suit up. With Durant projected for a below average night, and no other 50-point stud in sight (note: Steph Curry is way better in roto leagues than in DFS), Westbrook is a lock in cash games Thursday.

I’m going to highlight two more players, a tier below the superstars, to show how else you can use the projections to craft a lineup.

Thursday Projections 

Bradley Beal: 23.3 Pts, 4.4 Reb, 3.7 Ast, 1.1 Stl, 0.4 Blk. DK salary: $7200
Jimmy Butler: 20.1 Pts, 5.2 Reb, 5.0 Ast, 2.2 Stl, 0.3 Blk. DK salary: $9000

Against a tough OKC defense, and with a fully healthy John Wall soaking up some usage, Beal is projected below his season averages. Still, he’s projected for just about the same DK output (37.6) as Butler (39.1), while priced way lower. If there is no better way to spend your extra $1500, go with Butler. On a day like Thursday, though, you’ll need to skimp in order to avoid Westbrook, making Beal the better “2nd guy” in your lineup.

Now I’ll run through each game, highlighting the players who are more valuable than others.

Sacramento (95.5 expected Pts) @ Miami (105 expected Pts)

  • Game-time Decisions: All Sacramento veterans
  • Value: Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Justise Winslow
  • Fade: Willie Cauley-Stein, Josh Richardson

Sacramento has become the most annoying team in DFS, with coach Dave Joerger vowing to rest two or three veterans each game but never announcing which ones until just about tip-off. I’m guessing that one or both of George Hill (soon to be traded?) and Garrett Temple (40 minutes played last game) will be rested, which is good news for Sacramento’s shooting guards.

Hield is the better per-minute guy and has been seeing 27-29 minutes per game, while Bogdanovic is good for 30+ minutes and slightly lower usage. Both of them are cheap enough while being good bets for around 24 DKP. Skal Labissiere has been trending up (getting 22-29 minutes every night) and is now always a good bet for 20-30 DKP – he’s just towards the lower end of that Thursday in a potentially low-scoring game, making him a less attractive option in cash games. I’m fading Cauley-Stein – his price now reflects a 33-minute guy, and he needs a better matchup to be a cash play.

On the Miami side, they should be getting Goran Dragic back, which moves Josh Richardson off the ball and lowers his usage. He’s back to a guy who puts up good roto stat lines (think 13 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block) that don’t cut it in DFS. Hassan Whiteside is another guy I’m fading, due to blowout risk (he’ll be the first to rest down the stretch) and also roster construction (tough to afford him and Westbrook). The one guy who makes the most sense on Miami is Justise Winslow – with Tyler Johnson out, he’s been playing around 24 minutes every night, racking up rebounds, defensive stats, and a few assists each game. He could finish out the game in a blowout, making him the least risky of Miami’s DFS-relevant options.

Washington (105) @ Oklahoma City (109.5) 

  • Game-time Decisions: Patrick Patterson
  • Value: Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson
  • Fade: John Wall, Paul George

On the Washington side, they’re projected for a bit below their season-average 106.5 points, which makes sense against a tough OKC defense. John Wall, considering price and position, is thus out of the conversation. SG is definitely the weakest position today, and Beal’s price is depressed – as stated in the intro, he’s a good play, and his ownership may be too low if people actually think Andre Roberson can “shut him down.” Otto Porter Jr. was questionable but looks to be playing – this creates enough of a log-jam with Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr. where none of the three are valuable in a minus matchup.

Regarding OKC, it is projected for four points above their season average. They’re also a plus rebounding team (out-rebound opponents by 4.0 per game) facing a poor rebounding Wizards team (out-rebounded by opponents by 0.9 per game).

This is good news for virtually the entire starting lineup, especially Westbrook (of course). There is one other center who is a must-play (discussed later), but Adams is my second-favorite center Thursday. Andre Roberson has been playing around 30 minutes per night since returning from injury, and he can do enough in those minutes to put up the 15-20 DKP needed to hit value. George is in the mix for the second-best forward ranking Thursday (along with Kristaps Porzingis and Draymond Green), and Anthony is a distant 5th, but Anthony is so much cheaper that he’s more optimal next to Westbrook.

New York (103.8) @ Denver (109.3) 

  • Game-time Decisions: Kyle O’Quinn, Gary Harris
  • Value: Courtney Lee, Will Barton, Mason Plumlee
  • Fade: Kristaps Porzingis

This is only a relatively high-scoring total because the Knicks have been so poor on Defense. On the other end, they’re projected for just about season averages. Porzingis needs above average projections to be worth his “breakout star” price tag, and that just isn’t the case Thursday. Plus, he’s been poor when playing through injuries, and if he really missed the last game with a knee injury (and not just “rest”), he could see lower minutes in the high altitude. Lee is our favorite play amongst the Knicks – he should play a ton of minutes (mid-30s) as the Knicks’ best option to defend Denver’s numerous wings. He’s a great bet for a 13-3-3 type line, which would mean around 24 DKP. He’s cheaper than the Hield/Bogdanovic duo in Sacramento and belongs in the cash-game conversation with them. If Kyle O’Quinn is announced out, Willy Hernangomez should play 16-20 minutes and could be worth GPP speculation – maybe he’ll break out in front of baby bro Juancho.

Denver players’ values are largely dependent on Gary Harris. If Harris plays, I like Barton the most amongst the wings. He has the most DFS-friendly game of the bunch, and now that he’s starting, you can pencil him in for 33+ minutes instead of worrying about the occasional 16-minute stinker. If Harris sits, both Jamal Murray and Wilson Chandler enter the cash-game conversation, as both will be projected for around 35 minutes with more shots to go around. Mason Plumlee is my favorite center of the night. He’s a point-per-minute stud, and the question with him is always his minutes. Against a Knicks team that often rolls with 2 bigs on the floor, he should play a lot. If he plays around 24 minutes, he’s a no brainer value center that allows you to afford Westbrook and another semi-stud (Beal). Lastly – Jokic is always a threat to go off, and he could be eager to prove he’s better than All-Star Porzingis. His price is only right if Harris sits, however.

Minnesota (108.5) @ Golden State (120) 

  • Game-time Decisions: Jimmy Butler
  • Value: Nemanja Bjelica (if Butler sits), Klay Thompson
  • Fade: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant

Despite the high-scoring potential, Minnesota carries a ton of risk Thursday, playing at Oracle Arena on the second night of a back-to-back. If Butler plays, despite the fact that he’ll keep the score closer, I would avoid all Minnesota players in cash games. If he sits, Bjelica is cheap enough and should play enough (20+ minutes) to justify cash game usage.

Of all Minnesota’s studs, I like Karl-Anthony Towns the most. Minnesota’s best chance to win is by going big and exploiting the Towns mismatch, and he only played 31 minutes last night in the first game of the back-to-back. He can definitely win you a GPP, but I wouldn’t roster him in cash unless Butler sits. Golden State has plenty of wings to defend Andrew Wiggins, so while I don’t consider him a bad play if Butler sits, I do like Bjelica and Towns much more.

Golden State always has the highest team total of the day, and today they’re projected for four more points than they’ve averaged. Thompson is by far the cheapest of their stars and always a good value on above-average nights. The other three stars, on the other hand, are tough to squeeze in next to Westbrook, and they’re in a bit of a lose-lose situation – if Butler plays, Minnesota’s defense is better, and if he sits, there’s blowout potential.

If you multi-enter into GPPs, I’d make sure to have some Westbrook fade lineups that perhaps roster BOTH Curry and Durant, giving you leverage on a potentially high-scoring game. In cash, though, there are better options.

For more information on how to receive STATS’ award-winning DFS projections, visit the STATS fantasy page.

No Biggie, Purdue’s Got This

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Caleb Swanigan became arguably Purdue’s most decorated player since Glenn Robinson with an inside-outside game that produced stat sheet-stuffing numbers over his two seasons in West Lafayette. Last year’s Sweet 16 loss to Kansas in the NCAA Tournament led to the inevitable: Swanigan was off to pursue his NBA dream, and the Boilermakers had to figure out life without their Big Ten player of the year.

Something unexpected happened, though. Purdue actually got better. Not because “Biggie” no longer wears the black and gold, but because his supporting cast would be taking the lead and doling out his responsibilities.

The 2017-18 edition of the Boilermakers doesn’t have any obvious star power, but rather four senior starters, a rising sophomore, a solid bench and a 13th-year coach that has the Purdue faithful talking national title.

The reigning Big Ten regular-season champions are 19-2 and 8-0 in conference play for the first time in school history. The third-ranked Boilers dropped back-to-back games to Tennessee and Western Kentucky on Nov. 22 and 23 in the Bahamas, but they haven’t lost since and now possess the nation’s longest active winning streak at 15 heading into Thursday night’s home game against No. 25 Michigan.

Individual improvement – which we’ll get to in a minute – has sparked a team-wide uptick that has Purdue considered among college basketball’s elite. The Boilermakers’ 3-point shooting is up more than three percentage points to 43.7, a mark that’s tied for second in the nation after they drained a Big Ten-record 20 treys on 33 attempts in Saturday’s 87-64 rout of Iowa. They’re also allowing six fewer points on average compared to last season (62.2, down from 68.4) and forcing opponents to shoot 37.7 percent, compared to 42.1 percent in 2016-17.

That’s all led to Purdue being ranked third in adjusted defense, fourth in adjusted offense and second overall behind Villanova in the KenPom.com rankings. It ended up 23rd, 24th and 19th, respectively, in last year’s final standings.

Only three teams in the last 10 seasons have finished the season ranked in the top five in both adjusted offense and defense – 2007-08 Kansas, 2009-10 Duke and 2015-16 Villanova – and all of them won the national championship. It’s easy to understand why some believe this is coach Matt Painter’s most talented team despite not having a true star.

Carsen Edwards is making his case, though. The 6-foot-1 sophomore is the offensive catalyst for a veteran-laden starting lineup, improving his numbers dramatically across the board and making an early case for Purdue having back-to-back conference players of the year.

Vincent Edwards – no relation to Carsen – has taken a leading role and increased his averages as well, picking up where he left off after scoring at least 21 points in three of his final five games last season.

Carsen Edwards and Vincent Edwards have upped their games this season. (Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

Carsen Edwards’ dramatic increase in field goal percentage is the result of better decision-making. He often was criticized for erratic play and dribbling himself into bad shots and difficult passing situations as a freshman. Fellow starting guard P.J. Thompson, averaging only 1.3 turnovers per 40 minutes over his entire three-plus year career, attributes Edwards’ rise to becoming more mature.

That growing-up period has led to an 18-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio over the last three games for Edwards and also helped his teammates get theirs. Dakota Mathias is averaging 12.7 points compared to 9.7 last year despite playing fewer minutes, and Thompson has increased his scoring average while having less pressure to get the ball out of Edwards’ hands.

As for missing Swanigan down low? Isaac Haas and his 7-foot-2 frame is averaging 13.6 points, and 7-foot-3 freshman reserve Matt Haarms ranks fourth in the Big Ten in blocked shots. Contributions are coming from everywhere.

Purdue’s balance, veteran leadership and improvement up and down the roster mean it doesn’t need a player garnering constant national attention like Big Dog and Biggie before them. The Boilermakers can prove that further by doing something neither could accomplish: winning a national championship.

Gronk or No Gronk, Brady Still Shines for Patriots

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Rob Gronkowski took a shot to the head with less than two minutes to play in the first half of the AFC championship game, immediately went into concussion protocol and never returned. New England scored later in the possession to cut Jacksonville’s lead to four, but saw that lead jump back up to 10 at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

In stepped Danny Amendola, making one big play after another to carry the Patriots to their eighth Super Bowl since 2001.

The “next man up” mantra has been well-versed with the Patriots in the past, especially in the receiving corps. Last season, it was about Gronkowski. This season, it’s been about replacing Julian Edelman’s production. Depending on whether Gronkowski passes the concussion protocol, it may again be about replacing his production in Super Bowl LII. But if history is any indication, the Patriots won’t exactly be up a creek without a paddle if they’re without their star tight end.

That’s not to say Gronk isn’t a game-changer. He passed Dallas Clark on Sunday for the most postseason receiving yards ever by a tight end (856) and his 10 touchdown receptions are tied for third all-time among all pass-catchers. But Tom Brady has found others in his absence and put up roughly the same numbers as he does when Gronkowski is on the field.

Gronk owns the middle of the field when he plays. Of his 60 targets in the postseason since 2014, 32 of them have been on either a curl, dig, or slant route. He also frequently hooks up with Brady on vertical routes down the middle of the field, much like he did twice on the game-winning drive against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15.

However, STATS X-Info data shows when Gronkowski has missed time in the postseason, Brady has actually thrown more over the middle. With him in the lineup, Brady threw between the numbers 53 percent of the time. Without Gronk, that number rose to 56 percent.

The next man in simply ventures out over the middle a bit more with No. 87 out of the lineup. From 2014-15 with Gronkowski in the lineup during the postseason, Edelman ran just under 38 percent of his routes over the middle (cross, dig, drag, post, slant routes). With Gronk out during the 2016 postseason, he ran just over 47 percent of his routes over the middle. Amendola’s numbers look about the same — 26 percent of his routes were over the middle with Gronkowski, just under 47 percent without him.

It’s the same production, just different receivers.

The splits look similar in the red zone. With Gronkowski in the game, he is one of Brady’s favorite targets along with Edelman. Amendola has historically been the guy to get squeezed in the red zone, but with Gronkowski out, he finds ways to get involved. After only being targeted once in the red zone in 2015, he was thrown to three times last season with Gronkowski out of the lineup. During the second half alone of the AFC Championship on Sunday with both Gronkowski and Edelman out, Amendola was targeted three times (and once more from the 23-yard line).

Upped usage isn’t the moral of this story, though. An injury to any player on any team obviously means different guys will be more involved. New England isn’t special in that regard. It’s the fact that Brady doesn’t skip a beat, and that those Gronkowski replacements put up historical numbers without him.

Chris Hogan hasn’t even been mentioned yet, although his yardage last postseason (332) combined with Edelman (342) was the second-highest receiving yards total ever by a pair of teammates, trailing only Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad of the 2003 Carolina Panthers (756 combined).

The domino effect of Edelman (in part) replacing Gronkowski meant someone needed to replace Edelman’s original role, which fell to Hogan last season. That role is in large part towards the boundaries, where Hogan was targeted more than half the time on comeback, corner, flat, out, wheel, and go routes.

If Gronkowski cannot play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 4, Hogan may again have a larger role. Or it could be Brandin Cooks, who was the team’s leading receiver all year and who was targeted seven times after the Gronkowski injury in the AFC Championship, totaling 48 yards in receiving and another 68 in penalty yardage.

If Gronkowski cannot play, the Patriots’ game plan will be different, but it will be the same understudies stepping up and replacing production with the same quarterback and head coach in charge of it all. It’s not always the same ingredients, but it’s a recipe for success.

How Roster Depth Propelled the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl: Part I

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A simple review of many NFL “expert” preseason predictions shows how few believed the Philadelphia Eagles could win the NFC East, let alone take the conference title with home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. And that was before the injuries began happening with almost comical regularity.

Those who decided Dallas or the New York Giants – teams that combined for fewer regular-season wins (12) than the Eagles had on their own (13) – would win the division are now red-faced as Philadelphia prepares to face New England in Super Bowl LII. Just how were the Eagles able to overcome injuries both early and late to win the NFC?

The answer requires a complicated explanation, one that we’ll dissect on both sides of the ball in a two-part series ahead of the Super Bowl. But what’s important to remember throughout is that STATS foretold Philadelphia’s success prior to the 2017 season even beginning, backing it with X-Info data and advanced analytics.

STATS’ propriety model calculated the Eagles having the second-ranked overall roster in the NFL heading into the season when taking into account depth and performance – both past and projected – at each position. That may have seemed like a stretch considering the Eagles were coming off their second straight 7-9 campaign with a second-year quarterback who had an overall underwhelming debut season.

The X-Info roster rankings factor in much more than just the first unit, though. It helps provide context to a team’s depth and balance – almost an outline for the next-man-up mentality should someone fall to injury or simply underperform. We’ll get to the Eagles’ defense and the issues it faced in Part II next week, but first let’s get into how they found success offensively.

STATS Research notes Philadelphia is the first team since the 2003 Patriots to reach the Super Bowl without having an 800-yard rusher and a 900-yard receiver. Prior to that New England squad, the last team to do so was the 1990 New York Giants. The Eagles had the seventh-ranked offense this season, up from 22nd in coach Doug Pederson’s first season, when they also went with an offensive balance that spread to many different options.

The difference became the quality of talent, as Philadelphia traded receiver Jordan Matthews to Buffalo and signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. It also signed running back LeGarrette Blount from New England and cut Ryan Mathews. Of course, there’s no metric in the world able to predict Carson Wentz would go from throwing 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions as a rookie to a 33-to-7 ratio while becoming an MVP candidate the very next year, but a reasonable leap was expected.

STATS X-Info ranked Philadelphia with the second-best roster before it acquired former 1,200-yard rusher Jay Ajayi from Miami for a fourth-round pick Oct. 31, but the addition of undrafted free agent Corey Clement was underrated in the wake of Darren Sproles’ left ACL tear and broken right forearm suffered on the same play Sept. 24. Almost a month later to the day, nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters tore his right ACL and MCL, forcing unproven Halapoulivaati Vaitai to step into the starting lineup.

We noted shortly before the season opener that Wentz should have much better weapons than he did in 2016 with the additions of Jeffery and Smith, and for the most part that became true. Wentz’s completion percentage to strictly wide receivers rose from an NFL-worst 44.9 to 56.8 this season as his receivers created more separation with 6.9 yards at catch (fifth) after ranking 28th with a 5.04 average last year.

Wentz also become more efficient. His third-down passer rating went from 67.0 (on 156 attempts) in 2016 to 123.7 (on 124 attempts) this year, sparking an overall improvement from 79.3 to 101.9. Despite playing three fewer games, Wentz still saw an increase of pass plays of 20-plus yards (39 to 40).

It might seem odd that STATS X-Info calculated the Eagles having the 29th-ranked receiving corps, even with Nelson Agholor having more catches this season (62) than in his first two NFL campaigns combined (59). But that’s only because of the position distinction going essentially three deep, when in reality Wentz found his options all over the field. Pass-catching depth is the best way to describe it.

Zach Ertz finished with team highs of 74 catches and 824 yards along with eight touchdowns. Fellow tight ends Trey Burton and Brent Celek combined for 36 more catches, with Burton adding five touchdowns and Celek catching another. The Eagles targeted tight ends 31.5 percent of the time, which was 9.5 percent above league average and the second-highest mark in the league behind Indianapolis.

Also, six running backs caught at least five passes, and four had at least 47 carries as the Eagles tied for fourth in the NFL in yards per rush at 4.47. So while Philadelphia’s positional roster ranking for wide receivers from X-Info isn’t flattering, running backs ranked 12th and tight ends sixth. The production was spread between a plethora of players at each of those spots and, combined with Wentz’s improvement, more than justify the original overall roster ranking.

And we haven’t even discussed the injury that was supposed to derail Philadelphia’s Super Bowl hopes. Wentz’s torn ACL in Week 14 forced into action Nick Foles, a former Eagles Pro Bowler cast off from St. Louis and Kansas City the previous two seasons. Few people believed Foles could step in and replace Wentz’s production. Just as few people likely realized that Pederson worked with Foles previously as the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach in each of their first stints with the franchise.

Foles and Joe Montana are the only players in NFL history to complete at least 75 percent of their passes in back-to-back playoff games after Foles threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-7 win over Minnesota in the NFC championship game. Foles picked up where Wentz left off, with 14 different players catching a pass in Foles three regular-season starts and two postseason games. Five different running backs carried the ball in that span and Philadelphia has continued winning with the same offensive game plan.

When one cog goes down, the Eagles plug in another and the machine keeps churning smoothly. It’s a trend that’s continued throughout the season and into the Super Bowl, not simply because of depth, but the quality of that depth.

The same goes for the defensive side of the ball.

To be continued in Part II next week…

Giant Change: Analyzing Andrew McCutchen Against the NL West’s Top Pitchers

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Andrew McCutchen won an MVP hitting mostly against NL Central pitching while with the Pittsburgh Pirates. How will he do against some of the best pitching baseball has to offer in a San Francisco Giants uniform after getting traded out west?

Splits between a franchise icon and the only team he has ever known are rarely pretty. A growing base of Pittsburgh Pirates fans vowing never to return to PNC Park proves that point.

Alas, the Pirates no longer have the luxury of plugging Andrew McCutchen into the middle of the order every day after trading him to San Francisco, and pitchers such as Jon Lester, Adam Wainwright, Chase Anderson and Homer Bailey no longer have to deal with the former MVP in the NL Central.

On the flipside, there is a whole stock of pitchers out west brushing up on their McCutchen scouting reports. They will see plenty of the outfielder in the heart of the Giants’ revamped lineup, protected by the likes of Buster Posey and the newly acquired Evan Longoria.

Although Longoria has a limited sample size against the NL West, McCutchen has had plenty of looks at a handful of the elite pitchers the division boasts – with mixed results. Which pitchers are worried about McCutchen spending more time in a dugout opposite them? Who might be welcoming him and employing a formula to get him out that has worked in the past?

Here is a look into how McCutchen has fared against three of the division’s best — Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Alex Wood.

McCutchen vs. Zack Greinke

These two had extended looks at each other when Greinke was with the Milwaukee Brewers from 2011-12, and they’ve totaled 32 total plate appearances against each other since McCutchen came into the league in 2009. McCutchen is 8 for 30 (.267) against Greinke in his career, 23 points better than Greinke’s career batting average against (.244).

McCutchen hasn’t beaten Greinke with dribblers down the line or groundballs with eyes, either. Six of his eight hits in their matchups have been for extra bases, with one leaving Dodger Stadium in June of 2014 when Greinke was a member of the Dodgers. That’s an extra-base hit once every five at-bats for McCutchen, while Greinke has given up an extra-base hit once every 13 at-bats in his career.

McCutchen hit that home run in the third inning off a first-pitch fastball that caught too much of the plate. Two innings earlier, he hit a double to the warning track in deep left-center field on a first-pitch fastball.

Greinke attacked right-handed hitters with a first-pitch fastball just over 60 percent of the time in 2014, and McCutchen hit .409 off first-pitch heaters that year. That number was the high-mark of McCutchen’s career, but he’s hit under .315 on first-pitch fastballs just once. Throwing McCutchen fastballs in fastball counts is not a formula for success, to put it lightly.

However, Greinke has cut down McCutchen on strikes seven times, and the newest Giant is only 1 for 6 against him since the start of the 2015 season. In that time, Greinke has thrown eight fastballs across those six plate appearances, while mixing a lot more offspeed and breaking pitches.

McCutchen vs. Clayton Kershaw

You would assume McCutchen has had the least amount of success against one of the greatest pitchers of all-time, but you would be wrong. In fact, McCutchen’s .333 average in matchups with Kershaw is his seventh-highest against the 32 pitchers he has faced at least 25 times.

Like Greinke, Kershaw has relied on his fastball against McCutchen gotten burned. Six of McCutchen’s nine hits off the big lefty have been off fastballs, and two of those were first-pitch offerings.

It’s hard to narrow down to a small timeframe that McCutchen has owned Kershaw, because he’s had a hit in seven of the 10 games the two have matched up. Pitcher has gotten the better of hitter in their last two matchups, however, with McCutchen going just 1 for 6 with two punch-outs. A large part of that has been Kershaw moving away from the fastball and towards offspeed stuff. The past two games between the two are the only times in Kershaw’s career that he has thrown McCutchen more offspeed pitches than fastballs.

McCutchen vs. Alex Wood

Wood, a key member of the Dodgers’ starting rotation, has had more success against McCutchen than both Greinke and Kershaw. McCutchen is 4 for 19 (.211) against Wood with just two extra-base hits and six strikeouts.

The lefty has done a good job of balancing his pitch mix, firing fastballs just 46 percent of the time against McCutchen.

In their second matchup in September 2014, McCutchen had two hits (one off a first-pitch fastball) and a walk. Since then, he is 2 for 14 with five strikeouts. In those five at-bats, he has started with a fastball just twice, and struck him out with a curveball in all but one.

Wood has run into a little bit of luck against McCutchen as well. During the current 2-for-14 stretch, McCutchen has gone just 1 for 4 on first-pitch fastballs, combining one single with a fly out and two ground balls. The difference between Wood getting McCutchen out on those pitches versus Greinke and Kershaw failing to do so is just a couple inches; Wood has managed to keep the ball low and on the corners on those first pitches, while the other two have missed out and over the plate.

McCutchen has feasted on fastballs his entire career. Both Greinke and Kershaw learned that the hard way when the book wasn’t entirely written on how to get him out early in his career. It’s been very recently that both hurlers have gone more to their offspeed stuff to get McCutchen out and away from the fastball — much like Wood has done.

Whether McCutchen makes an adjustment to that shift remains to be seen, but he will have plenty of opportunities in his new home on the Bay.

How’d They Do It?: The Telling Touch Locations Behind Liverpool’s Triumph Over Unbeaten Manchester City

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Pep Guardiola’s bid for an undefeated Premier League campaign ended Sunday at Anfield, and the football world sounded off with opinions on what worked, who the key individuals were, and why Jürgen Klopp has succeeded against Manchester City in ways others haven’t. STATS Playing Styles and Tier 6+ data take it beyond unquantified analysis to substantiate and challenge those claims while giving credit to Liverpool players less obvious than Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. The main takeaway? Press on.

 

It’s something of a cycle. When Liverpool win, Jurgen Klopp’s system is lauded. There’s of course been plenty of that lately. When the Reds relinquish a lead or implode in their own half, the same system tends to fall under defensive scrutiny. The commentary is often reactionary and oversimplified, and it’s occasionally unsubstantiated. For better or worse, the term gegenpressing follows the Liverpool boss like a role follows a typecast actor even if he’s capable of much more.

Whichever side you’re on from week to week, you have to accept one simple fact: After Sunday’s 4-3 victory, in four Premier League matches, Klopp has seven points against Guardiola and Guardiola has four against Klopp. Something is working. Rather, somethings are working. At the centre of those somethings lies efficacy in individual player possessions and how that fluctuates based on pitch position. No football eye, as keen as it may be, can track that on its own. With STATS Playing Styles, we’re going to show what actually went down at Anfield as Liverpool stretched their Premier League unbeaten streak to 14 while ending City’s at 30 dating to last season.

Let’s first address the match’s stylistic deviation for each club in comparison to their season form, and we’ll work into more complex and individualised touch data as we go. The Playing Styles webs below give us some surface-level insight for this specific match and how each team compared to their 2017-18 season selves:

Playing Styles comparisons here are measured against each team’s season average of zero percent. (Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

What this tells us isn’t in itself groundbreaking: City were disrupted in possession-based attacking styles such as build up, sustained threat and fast tempo. These are styles they display more frequently than any club in the Premier League. Liverpool, meanwhile, employed more counter attack, high press and direct play than they typically do. This also isn’t a radical consideration given the expectations football minds have for this specific fixture.

As much as we’d like to compare Liverpool’s win to City’s 5-0 victory at the Etihad back in September, it’s illogical to do so because Sadio Mane was sent off in the 37th minute, so Liverpool played down a man for the majority of the match. Instead, we’ll start by comparing the teams to their season norms in a few key categories.

Liverpool had 10 possessions on which their high-press membership accounted for  50 percent or more of the possession’s value, which ranks third among their 23 matches behind a 4-0 win at Bournemouth on Dec. 17 (15) and that frenetic 3-3 draw with Arsenal on Dec. 22 (13).

What we should notice first about City is an incredible dip in build-up play, which is defined as periods of play in which a team is looking for opportunities to attack between midfield and the edge of the 18. Manchester City operate at 136 percent above Premier League average in build up. Last weekend at Anfield, they were at +6 percent. And because build-up play can feed sustained threat and fast tempo, those percentages fell off as well. City’s season average for sustained threat is +71 percent. It fell to -14 at the weekend. City’s average for fast tempo is +192 percent of the Premier League average. It fell to -70 against Liverpool.

These are all league-leading season marks, as is their +52 percent maintenance, which rose to +106 against Liverpool. City had the ball plenty, but it didn’t nearly as often progress beyond maintenance, which captures possessions in which a team looks to maintain and secure possession within their defensive area. At Anfield, they had 55 maintenance possessions for their highest total of the season. This begins to hint at the position of City’s possessions or possibly an inability to progress the ball into more dangerous attacking areas.

Let’s now look into where they lost the ball and how frequently. Given Liverpool’s success Sunday, it might follow that we should expect Klopp’s side to have dispossessed City more frequently higher up the pitch than other sides have.

City, one way or another, were dispossessed 36 times in positions spanning from their own goal line to five metres beyond midfield – the zone STATS Playing Styles defines for an opposition’s high press opportunity. But that’s actually rather average for City. They lost the ball in this zone on average 37.8 times per game in their other 22 matches, so what made the widely lauded Liverpool press effective?

Here’s where those analysing the match might not be finishing the job. It wasn’t necessarily that City were being dispossessed at some incredible rate by Liverpool. It’s that they were being displaced. The Reds’ success almost certainly had something to do with pushing City deeper than they typically play. With Tier 6+ event data, we can average the XY positions of each player on his touches. The initial insight here lies in the average position of each City player up the pitch. City’s possession leaders were defenders, not midfielders, but that’s not an oddity in itself, particularly in a match such as this when so much of City’s possession was in maintenance.

Nicolas Otamendi led City with 111 possessions, and his average touch was 16.8 metres behind midfield. His season average? 10.0 metres into his own half. Fellow centre back John Stones only had a variation of -2.4 metres, but that dropped him back to an average touch point of 18.6 metres behind the centre line for the deepest position of any outfield player in the match other than Dejan Lovren (-21.1). To the right, Kyle Walker fell off from 3.2 metres in front of midfield to 3.7 behind.

Granted, these distances can be made up with the right passes, but there’s something to be said for the psychological impact of consistently possessing deeper in one’s end, and that’s compounded when you’ve got burners like Mane and Mohamed Salah running at you. Possibly the most striking deviation for City was that of Danilo, who came on at 31 minutes for Fabian Delph. Danilo’s season average touch happens 3.5 metres into the attacking half. Against Liverpool, it occurred 11.7 metres behind half, and few will be reluctant to give Salah some credit for that.

Values are rounded to the nearest tenth, which explains any subtraction discrepancies.

It clearly happened in the attack, too. Raheem Sterling’s typical touch occurs a remarkably advanced 21.7 metres beyond midfield. It fell back to 13.7 against Liverpool.

This may sound interesting enough on its own, but none of it means much if we can’t assign efficacy to what occurs in a given position. Let’s go to the middle of the pitch, where value has traditionally been difficult to measure for players who don’t score much but also aren’t the last line of defence.

Fernandinho is considered a more-than-capable holding midfielder, and for good reason. There’s just a limit to how deep that comfort – and value – goes. He’s not used to consistently possessing closer to his own penalty area, and it showed against Liverpool. His average touch occurred 5.9 metres behind half. His season average is 3.9 metres advanced from that. Fernandinho had 93 possessions against Liverpool, so that amounts to considerable ground for one player to compensate for in one match.

Here’s where STATS Ball Movement Points comes in. We’ve used BMP quite a bit in past posts, but here’s the rundown: BMP considers ball movement made by an individual player from a start zone to an end zone and assigns value based on past results from massive amounts of league data. These scores accumulate during a match or across a season to indicate the value of a player’s ball distribution. BMP considers every involvement a player has to credit or discredit decisions with the ball and reward creativity. It’s what football minds could always see but never calculate. It goes beyond expected assists by looking at the full chain of passes, weighing the probability of that pass leading to a shot later in the play. Passing points generate expected shot points, so if a player generates one BMP, he has generated passes to lead to or defend one shot. It expresses the level of threat or wastefulness that can be attributed to a player. It’s broken down into categories of offensive and defensive as well as positive and negative (oBMP+, oBMP-, dBMP+, dBMP-) with net values telling the more conclusive story.

For the season, Fernandinho’s 3.93 net oBMP ranks seventh with a truly elite group of Premier League midfielders, and that’s particularly impressive because it’s among players who have far more offensive opportunity and responsibility than he. But his oBMP for the Liverpool loss was 0.08. You know what’s coming: Among the 21 matches in which he possessed the ball at least 60 times, it was his lowest mark. His dBMP- – measuring a player’s liability in possession for giving the ball away in dangerous areas – of minus-0.11 is his third-worst mark of the season behind City’s Nov. 5 match with Arsenal and Dec. 10 match with Manchester United.

It wasn’t just Pep Guardiola’s go-to holding man falling short. It was also his potential player of the year. You can see above that Kevin De Bruyne wasn’t nearly as withdrawn as some of his teammates, but his 0.06 oBMP was his second-worst mark of the season, ranking narrowly ahead of an outlier against Swansea last month. City had a 3-0 lead on 52 minutes, so there wasn’t exactly a need to get ambitious for much of the game. And he made up for any creative deficiency in that match by finishing a chance himself.

That list goes on for City’s players. It’s time to assign direct credit to the Reds. We’ll start on the team level and work down to individuals.

We already discussed the Reds’ high press. Liverpool also achieved their second-most possessions with a counter-attacking membership of at least 50 percent. Those 12 trail only the 13 they had in that December match with Arsenal. When their counter and high press overlapped, good things happened, particularly in the 62nd minute. Salah’s press of Otamendi and regain turned into transition and a beautiful finish from Mane that gave the Reds a 3-1 lead. Without it, we’d potentially be talking about another Liverpool defensive collapse rather than City’s first loss.

While City players fall in across the board against Liverpool, the Reds’ blazers played more of their game against City. Salah’s average position per touch for the season is 20.4 metres beyond half. Against City, it was 17.7. Mane: 15.4 for the season and 12.6 against City. Roberto Firmino fell in from 16.4 to 14.0, but it’s far from the deviation for City’s front.

So what exactly pushed City into those deeper positions, and who else accounted for the regains? We don’t need high-level event data to tell us it wasn’t Philippe Coutinho. We do need STATS Playing Styles and Tier 6+ to quantify the value of a Liverpool midfield that’s often overlooked in favour of the flair provided by Salah and Mane.

Yet if we look at Liverpool’s team-wide deviation against City, it’s considerable. In two matches, Liverpool fell in 3.7 metres behind half against City, and interestingly enough, it was more drastic with 11 men (-4.5) than at the beginning of the season with 10 (-2.9) for the majority of the match. For the season against all opponents, their average touch position is 1.3 metres advanced of half.

So if Mane, Firmino and Salah aren’t accounting for much of that dip, it follows the farther we go back in the 4-3-3 formation, the more ground Liverpool cede against City. Emre Can, one of the most centralised players in the Premier League (X: 0.0, Y: -0.7) is getting plenty of love for his central presence in the match, but is anyone providing empirical evidence as to why? Where Fernandinho might have faltered, we can objectively state Can flourished. His average touch’s position went from -0.2 last time out against City to -10.0 on Sunday, yet his oBMP actually increased. That’s difficult to do, particularly so against a Manchester City side that holds the ball as much as they do. And Can’s dBMP- was his fourth-best single-match total of the season, despite playing in easily his most withdrawn position of the season. If Juventus are as interested in Can as certain reports suggest, Liverpool would be wise to show tape of his efforts against City – and STATS Playing Styles can objectively support it.

Onto Can’s midfield teammates. Arsenal and Newcastle fans, it’s time to look away. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Georginio Wijnaldum played substantial roles in putting City in those uncomfortable scenarios, and it goes well beyond Oxlade-Chamberlain’s ninth-minute goal or 59th-minute assist to Firmino.

The £40 million man contributed four counter attack regains, a high-press regain and a truly impressive 192.7 metres of counter-attack distance covered (126.2 passed and 66.5 carried) for the seventh-highest single-match total in the Premier League this season.

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s counter distance accounts for 25.1 percent of his season total (766.8 metres), so this might have been an outlier of a performance. Or, as some in the media have suggested, it could be an indication of an emerging role he’ll take on with Coutinho gone. But that’s an odd suggestion even if you went no further into it than watching the match. And it’s certainly not supported by his average position on the pitch against City, particularly the east-west axis. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s season average touch occurs 13.1 metres beyond midfield and 2.7 right of centre. Against City, his touches occurred on average 9.3 metres beyond midfield and 6.1 right of centre. Coutinho’s average horizontal position with Liverpool was 13.0 metres forward and 7.9 left, so well across the pitch from where Oxlade-Chamberlain operated. It seems someone else was slotting in behind Mane on the left.

That someone, at least for one thrilling match, was Wijnaldum, who’s average position changed from his season marks of 3.6 metres beyond midfield and 2.9 left of centre to 0.3 forward and 10.0 left. The result was three counter regains and a substantial 120.1 metres of counter distance (37.2 carried and 82.8 passed).

In all, Liverpool’s counter attack covered an impressive 642.1 metres for their second-highest single-game mark this season behind only the Arsenal match. City, Arsenal and Watford have each topped that mark once this season while many Premier League clubs would need multiple matches to get up to that kind of total.

Of course, not all of this distance covered contributed to scoring or even to shots. But it changed the way City went about their match. It changed the positions of their players on the ball. It took them out of the comfort zone that, though 22 matches, it seemed they could patent.

Liverpool had their deepest average starting point of any match this season at 4.5 metres short of midfield, and their 527 possessions rank ahead of only that 10-man match at the Etihad, yet they found a way to get City flustered – all the way back to surefooted distributing goalkeeper Ederson for the fourth goal. That comfort zone typically means Guardiola’s side on average touches 3.3 metres into the attacking half. City’s average touch came 2.8 metres behind midfield against Liverpool, which for the season is ahead of only that first match with Klopp’s side (-2.9). Leicester City is the only other club to knock City’s average back into the defensive half, and they did it by a mere 0.2 metres.

Liverpool aren’t doing this to everyone, and it’s not the only way they succeed. Leicester back on Sept. 23 began their possessions 4.8 metres beyond midfield against Liverpool, which resulted in a 3-2 win for Klopp’s side. They are quite frequently a possession-based attacking side, so it’s probably oversimplifying to pin that gegenpressing term to him so dutifully.

But against City over two seasons, it’s resulted in two wins, a draw and a loss. The next meeting should be even more interesting. A phrase that of course follows Guardiola around is total football. That means he knows how to press back.

Shohei Ohtani is (at Least Temporarily) Revolutionizing Fantasy Baseball

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Shohei Ohtani’s recruitment marked the beginning of a shift from the MLB norm of baseball purists backing NL lineups including weak-hitting pitchers, and AL supporters calling for league-wide expansion of the designated hitter rule introduced 45 years ago.

Never before has a player of Ohtani’s two-way potential entered MLB with such hype and mystery, and the anticipation for both his first pitch thrown and his first pitch taken in a Los Angeles Angels uniform has caused quite a stir. And not just among casual observers.

Ohtani’s multiple talents have presented more problems for the fantasy baseball industry than excitement. A normally straightforward game separating hitters and pitchers must undergo changes to accommodate Ohtani’s unique abilities, causing some confusion, extra behind-the-scenes work and a major difference between at least two major outlets popular for hosting season-long fantasy games.

STATS took a deep dive in Ohtani’s advanced statistics accumulated during his career in Japan, including video breakdown of his most efficient pitches thrown and smooth power swing at the plate. It’s no wonder these fantasy hosts had trouble creating a solution. Ohtani hits 100 mph throwing right-handed and can crush 400-foot homers hitting left-handed. Whether or not he can transfer one or both of those skills over to MLB is still uncertain, but all of his talents must be considered with fantasy baseball drafts approaching.

Yahoo! Sports settled on creating two different versions of Ohtani, one as strictly a position player and the other as a pitcher. Ohtani the pitcher would not get credit for hitting stats – much like the current game when pitchers’ performance at the plate is moot because of the rare instances they get on base – and Ohtani the hitter would not gather pitching stats at any point.

CBS went a different route, creating only a single draftable Ohtani and allowing owners to toggle between him being a pitcher and hitter, with only one set of statistics counting depending on the slot chosen for that day or week. However, league commissioners will be granted the ability to edit statistics on the backend, and if they choose can give credit for performances at the plate or on the mound when Ohtani is slotted in the opposite.

That difference could cause fantasy players to gravitate to a certain website to host their league, or at the very least cause discussion of how to treat Ohtani. It’s safe to say the fantasy guidelines of one specific player have never caused so much uproar. Could there wind up being midseason changes in the rules?

You can likely expect daily fantasy sites like DraftKings and FanDuel operating business as usual. Corey Schwartz, a predictive analyst for STATS who specializes in player projections for DFS games, doesn’t believe the industry will see much change with Ohtani involved, but the changes can be made easily if so inclined.

“I think in DFS it’s nice they’ll have the flexibility to make it up as they go along,” Schwartz said, “but I’d be surprised if they ever count his hitting and pitching stats on the same day. Too many people would make a fuss about that being a change, and there’s too much money involved to do anything revolutionary.”

The decision to either change or remain standard for any outlet could wind up setting a precedent, though. The Tampa Bay Rays used the fourth overall pick of the 2017 draft to select Louisville two-way star Brendan McKay, who won the Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s top player, and the Rays have made it clear McKay will see time both at the plate and on the mound. In Single-A ball last year, McKay hit .232 with four homers, 22 RBIs, 33 strikeouts and 21 walks in 36 games for Hudson Valley. He also went 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 20 innings over six starts.

McKay hasn’t yet attracted as much attention as Ohtani, but it’s possible that Ohtani’s success or failure as a two-way MLB player could end up influencing the decision of how to use McKay and any similar players who might come along. It’s way too early to say Ohtani is about to change the game for good, but he’s at least temporarily revolutionizing the fantasy baseball industry.

Clipped Wings? Detailing Why the Atlanta Falcons’ Offense Wasn’t as High-Flying in 2017

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Kyle Shanahan is gone, and Matt Ryan is now a shell of his old self after the now-San Francisco 49ers head coach groomed him into an MVP a season ago, right? Well, not quite.

First off, Ryan has the Falcons playing into the second weekend of the NFC playoffs with a good shot at another trip to the NFC championship game. That hasn’t changed since last season.

This season has been different, though. Atlanta was winning by a margin of over two touchdowns during last season’s Super Bowl run; this year, that margin is down toward eight points per game. Ryan threw 38 touchdowns in 2016; this season, that total only reached 20.

So where’s the difference? Well, Steve Sarkisian is wearing the offensive coordinator headset this year, and the playcalling has been different than Shanahan’s. That’s just one difference, but it’s where we’ll start.

Play-Action Passes

Shanahan loves the play-action pass. The Falcons threw the second-most play-action passes in the NFL last season, and the 49ers ranked the same this season under the first-year head coach. And Ryan was really good in the play-action passing game in 2016, ranking sixth in QB rating in that category (109.8). That correlated to 26 big pass plays (20+ yards), 1,469 yards and nine touchdowns.

Ryan has been just as good this season on play-action, he just hasn’t had as many opportunities to put it on display. After throwing 143 times after a play fake last season, he did the same only 117 times this season — the 16th-highest total in the league. That in turn produced 18 big plays and five touchdowns.

The Falcons also didn’t spread the ball around as much off play-action this season. Julio Jones was the overwhelming favorite target for Ryan, throwing more than 35 percent of his play-action passes to him in 2017. Jones was one of four Falcons pass-catchers to have 10 or more targets off play-action. On the flipside, Ryan targeted six different receivers more than 10 times during his MVP season, while targeting Jones just 25 percent of the time.

The bigger emphasis on getting the ball to Jones seemed to be a theme this season.

(Not) Spreading the Wealth

Jones was targeted on 28 percent of Ryan’s passes overall this season, the fourth-highest percentage in the entire league. Only DeAndre Hopkins (34 percent), A.J. Green (29) and Antonio Brown (28) were targeted more. Jones’ 148 targets were 19 more than his 2016 total.

In line with Jones’ upped usage, Ryan threw the ball less to his other receivers this season. The Falcons had eight players catch at least 12 passes. Conversely, Atlanta had 10 players with at least 13 catches a season ago, when its two main running backs — Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman — were highly involved in the passing game. Those two combined for 85 catches, 883 yards and five touchdowns a season ago, while hauling in 63 catches, 616 yards and four TDs this season.

The same has been true for the Falcons’ deep passing game — passes traveling 21 or more air yards downfield. Ryan was historically good in that department in 2016 with a 133.1 QB rating, easily the best in the NFL. His 1,018 yards were second most in the NFL. His 47.3 completion percentage and nine touchdown passes on those throws were both third best in the league, while he was one of only four quarterbacks with at least 20 deep pass attempts to not throw an interception. Matty Ice’s success was spread around to a number of receivers, namely Jones, speedster Taylor Gabriel and tight end Austin Hooper. Jones did what you would expect him to do: 11 catches for 381 yards on 30 targets. Gabriel was a good addition in 2016 for Atlanta, catching seven deep balls on seven targets for 213 yards and three touchdowns. Hooper added 120 yards on deep balls.

Ryan’s completion percentage on those same throws dropped to 26 percent this season, while only connecting for 492 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

So what was different this season?

Ryan was pressured on over 41 percent of his deep throws this season, up from 34 percent in 2016. That’s part of it.

Another was the reluctance of Ryan to throw the ball deep to anyone other than Jones. Ryan targeted Jones on an astonishing 63 percent of his deep throws, by far the highest percentage in the league (T.Y. Hilton was second at 51 percent). The abundance of targets led to 10 catches for 328 yards, but didn’t leave much production for anyone else, considering Ryan only connected on 14 deep balls all season. Gabriel didn’t catch any of his seven deep targets this season, and Hooper didn’t catch a single deep ball after Week 1.

The Falcons used Jones more this season, but they also used him differently.

Julio’s Changing Route Tree

Jones caught 12 passes on 17 targets running a post route in 2016 for 364 yards. No one else in the league gained more than 250 yards on the post route. In 2017, he caught three passes on seven targets for 51 yards on that route. He was also extremely successful running out routes in 2016, being targeted 11 times and catching nine of those for 142 yards. In 2017, he was targeted more (13 times), but only caught five out routes for 61 yards.

That’s only half the story, however. Jones did, in fact, have more receiving yards in 2017 than he did in 2016. So he had success on other routes.

One of those was the corner route. After only being targeted six times on that route in 2016, Jones was targeted 13 times on the corner route this season and caught 12 for 145 yards. He was also much more efficient running the curl route, as you can see below:

It’s not all about what the Falcons are doing differently on offense, however. Defenses have made adjustments to their high-flying attack.

Changing Defenses

Opposing teams have made a collective effort to get at Ryan more, hurrying him on 17.5 percent of his completions this season, a number that was 11.5 percent last year.

A big part of that has been first down blitzes. In 2016, defenses brought five or more defenders on first down 45 times out of Ryan’s 229 dropbacks (19.6 percent). Ryan’s subsequent first-down totals looked like this: 156-229 (68 percent)/2,448 yards/14 TDs/4 INTs/116.5 QB rating.

This season, defenses brought five or more on first down almost 28 percent of the time, and Ryan’s numbers took a hit along with him: 142-216 (65)/1,830 yards/9 TDs/6 INTs/94.5 QB rating.

Matt Ryan might not have played like an MVP this season. But the 10-year veteran still threw for over 4,000 yards and has his team in the NFC Divisional Round, where they’re favored to make it back to the NFC title game.

His numbers this season compared to last have as much to do with learning a new offense as anything else. His numbers in his first season under Kyle Shanahan’s tutelage, 2015, look more like his 2017 season than his 2016 MVP season.

Although his 2016 season may be an outlier, his numbers this season don’t point to a career decline.