The Defensive Hog Index we use over at Cold, Hard Football Facts.com is the steely-eyed sniper of postseason pigskin analysis, so accurate that we let it shoot beer cans off the heads of our children.
In fact, it’s accurately identified 18 of 19 winners over the past two postseasons. So we felt compelled in the interest of pigskin-kind to share it with WEEI Nation.
The Defensive Hog Index (DHI) is simply a measure of each team’s defensive front. It tells us a lot about the conference title games this week and, perhaps more importantly for your purposes, it tells us a lot about your beloved Patriots in the months and the season ahead. You and Bill Belichick can thank us for the knowledge later.
First: Yes, it is true, the Cold, Hard Football Facts Defensive Hog Index has identified 18 of 19 playoff winners over the past two seasons. In other words, teams that ranked higher in this indicator have won each and every playoff game but one. The DHI even identified the team that would shock the world and win the Super Bowl last year.
That’s right: the Giants were weak in many areas last year. But they were No. 1 in the Defensive Hog Index. Here in 2008, meanwhile, the Steelers, Eagles, and Ravens – three of the final four teams – rank 1-2-3, respectively.
Notice a trend here, fine football folks?
Last year, when the DHI went 10-1 in the playoffs, we considered it something of a statistical anomaly – like Dakota from Braintree winning an argument.
But then it went 4-0 on wildcard weekend this year. And then it went 4-0 again in the divisional round – accurately identifying all three road upsets last weekend (Eagles over Giants, Cardinals over Panthers, Ravens over Titans).
Did you pick all three of those underdogs to win on the road? Do you know anybody who picked all three of those underdogs to win on the road?
I didn’t think so. (Of course, neither did I … but I’ve learned my lesson.)
In fact, the only team that bucked the trend over the past two postseasons – the lone loss for the Defensive Hog Index – was your New England Patriots in the AFC title game last year: the Patriots ranked 7th on the indicator; the Chargers ranked 5th.
So it was a pretty narrow difference to begin with, and the Patriots dominated the Chargers in almost every other indicator that we use to rank teams. So it took all that statistical inertia in New England’s favor, not to mention the only 16-0 team NFL history, to overcome the raw, naked pigskin power of the Defensive Hog Index.
Why’s it been so effective? Well, we’re trying to figure it out, too. We just introduced the indicator last year, with the help of New Bedford Standard-Times sports editor, CHFF contributor and general bon vivant Jonathan Comey.
After a little tinkering, we settled on what is apparently a pretty effective formula. The Index is simply a compilation of how each team’s defensive front seven ranks in three key categories: their ability to stop the run, their ability to force opponents into negative pass plays (sacks and interceptions) and their ability to stop opponents on third down.
Each is important in its own right:
Stopping the run – Most “pundits” agree that stopping the run is a key to victory, especially in cold-weather football.
Forcing negative pass plays – This is huge: teams that force quarterbacks into mistakes (sacks and interceptions) win football games. It’s simple as that. In fact, throughout the Super Bowl Era, teams that fail to force opponents into a single interception win just 22 percent of the time in the playoffs. Teams that force opponents into two interceptions win 69 percent of the time.
Third-down defense – It’s hard to win if you can’t get off the field. Just ask the Chargers, who had the life squeezed out of them by a suffocating python from Pittsburgh on Sunday. The Steelers held the ball an amazing 14 minutes and 43 seconds of the third quarter.
Teams that are good in all three areas rank highly on the Defensive Hog Index and, it seems, are well built to win playoff games.
So here’s what the indicator says about the conference title contenders and, at the end, what it tells us about your Patriots as they prepare to return to Super Bowl-contending form in 2009.
Arizona (No. 17 in DHI) – The Cardinals are clearly the red-birded stepchild of final four teams. Not only were they a humble 9-7 this year, they finished the season ranked a mere 17th on the Defensive Hog Index. But here’s the catch: they had the good fortune here in the playoffs of facing the only two NFC contenders worse than they were on the defensive front, the Falcons (23rd) and Panthers (19th). That trend ends on Sunday.
Baltimore (No. 3) – You know the Ravens are traditionally good defensively, and the Defensive Hog Index quantifies it: Baltimore ranked in the top five this year against the run (opponents averaged 3.56 YPA), against the pass (forcing negative pass plays on 10.7 percent of drop backs) and on third down (opponents converted just 33.5 percent of attempts). In fact, the Ravens were better in every single one of these areas than the 13-3 Titans team that they upset on Saturday.
Philadelphia (No. 2) – The Eagles were even better than Baltimore in every aspect of the Defensive Hog Index, ranking fourth against the run (3.51 YPA), third forcing negative pass plays (11.0%) and second on third-down defense (opponents converted 32.2 percent of attempts). The Eagles easily win this battle against the Cardinals.
Pittsburgh (No. 1) – The Steelers were not only No. 1 in the Defensive Hog Index this year, they were absolutely dominant – ranking No. 1 across the board in every single aspect of the indicator. In the two years that they we’ve tracked the Defensive Hog Index over at Cold, Hard Football Facts.com, no team has ever ranked No. 1 across the board in any given week. But at the end of 2008, the Steelers were the best team in the NFL against the run (3.29 YPA); they were the best team at forcing opponents into negative pass plays (12.2 percent of drop backs ended in a sack or interception); and they were the best team in football on third down (opponents converted just 31.4 percent of attempts).
If the trends hold true, the Steelers beat the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
There is a kink in the works, though: the Steelers are dreadful in our Offensive Hog Index, meaning they’ll definitely struggle Sunday against Baltimore’s highly rated Defensive Hogs.
New England (No. 16) – Most observers, including the Cold, Hard Football Facts, noted the struggles of the New England’s secondary this year. But the performance of the Defensive Hogs was a huge (if less noticeable) problem that the team needs to address in the off-season if they endeavor to return to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots plummeted statistically in this area from the 16-0 season of 2007 (when they ranked 7th on the Defensive Hog Index) to the 11-5 playoff-less season of 2008 (when they ranked 16th).
In fact, for all the No. 1 draft picks in the front seven (four of them), the Patriots were not a particularly stout defensive front.
The Patriots were better against the run here in 2008 (4.15 YPA) than they were in the 16-0 season of 2007 (4.37 YPA). But in every other area their production decline precipitously.
The 2007 Patriots forced opposing quarterbacks into a lot of mistakes. In fact, 11.5 percent of every drop back last year ended in a sack or interception in New England’s favor. Only two teams were better.
The 2008 Patriots forced sacks or interceptions on just 8.9 percent of drop backs. Twelve teams were better.
Essentially, an inability to put pressure on quarterbacks and force mistakes compounded problems for a secondary that had talent and production problems to begin with. As a result, the 2008 Patriots were one of the worst teams in the league stopping the pass.
The 2007 Patriots were also very, very good on third down. Opponents converted a mere 33.7 percent of attempts. Only three teams were better.
The 2008 Patriots were very, very bad on third down. Opponents converted 44.4 percent of attempts. Twenty-five teams were better.
The Patriots this past season simply could not get off the field when they needed.
It all adds up to some much needed reconstructive surgery for New England’s Defensive Hogs here in the off-season.
After all, as an 18-1 postseason record has proven over the past two years, teams that field top-flight defensive fronts win big football games in January. Teams that do not field top-flight defensive fronts watch the conference title games from home.
Kerry J. Byrne is the publisher of ColdHardFootballFacts.com. His self-congratulatory column will appear here each Wednesday during football season. Send fawning praise, death threats or pictures of your 19-year-old sister to firstname.lastname@example.org.